Henderson just 'hoping' Sprinter is back to best
Nicky Henderson outlined a team of 30 horses for Cheltenham, which begins a fortnight today, but about his headline horse, Sprinter Sacre, regaining his Champion Chase title, he professed himself "hopeful" rather than confident.
With 51 winners, Henderson remains the most successful Festival trainer. In 2012, he sent out seven winners. In 2013, it was four. But last year yielded only a solitary winner.
This season, the media focus has switched to Willie Mullins, the Closutton maestro who might just as well hire HMS Ark Royal to ease the logistical problems of shipping his squad of favourites here.
"I've got enough to worry about here without worrying about Willie's horses," said a relaxed Henderson as he showed off his leading players yesterday. "It would be great if one of them can keep the scoresheet ticking over, all the better if it's L'Ami Serge in the opener, then we could relax.
"He's a good horse, but I heard Willie's (Douvan) is the best he's ever brought over. I'm not saying mine's that good."
In his pomp - his first two seasons over fences - it was a case of Sprinter Sacre just turning up. However, Henderson is happy with the nine-year-old after he finished second to Dodging Bullets in the Clarence House Chase at Ascot last month.
"Physically, he has done very well since," explained Henderson. "He had a quiet 10 days after Ascot and put a bit of condition back on, which gave us a nice bit to work on. I'm not saying he's back to what he was when he was ridiculously unbeatable for two years. But he's in good shape and has done everything we have remotely asked of him."
Looking forward to the two-mile championship, he added: "Sprinter Sacre versus Sire de Grugy will be one the clashes of the meeting. They've got a crown that we want back. Everything is going to plan and it would be an enormous help for us if it came up good ground."
Apart from Sprinter Sacre, Henderson's other favourite is the tall Peace And Co, which will line up beside stable companions Top Notch and Hargam in the JCB Triumph Hurdle. Though the market suggests that Peace And Co, which is working well, is Henderson's best chance of a winner, the trainer himself diplomatically refused to put the three in a finishing order.
"Peace And Co learned a lot last time," he pointed out. "Top Notch has the most experience, while Hargam is professional and looked a good horse on better ground at Musselburgh."
Josses Hill - a respectable runner-up to the Mullins-trained Vautour in last year's Supreme - occasionally looks like he scares himself over a fence, but Henderson noted that, despite the presence of Un De Sceaux in the Arkle, Barry Geraghty was very keen on him.
The trainer added that Ma Filleule, an 8/1 shot for the Ryanair Chase, should be considered one of his 'A' team, while head lad Corky Browne nodded in the direction of Bobs Worth, the 2013 Gold Cup winner, when asked for his idea of a winner.
"Last year was the first time he hasn't come up that hill," said Henderson of the Gold Cup's forgotten horse. "He's won at three Festivals and had tough races each time. What he lacks in talent he makes up for by putting his heart and soul into it and, by God, he's a trier. But that takes a lot out of them.
"It would be party time if Sprinter Sacre and Bobs Worth can get their heads in front."
One of the trainer's more dangerous handicap contenders is Dawalan, which has a Pertemps Final engagement following his Musselburgh triumph at the start of the month.
"Dawalan is going for the Pertemps. We tried him over three miles at Musselburgh on good ground and he probably won a bit too impressively," the Seven Barrows maestro remarked.
As for the rest of his team, Vaniteux will be an outsider for the Champion Hurdle, but is on target to line up in the main event on the opening day of the Festival and Henderson feels better ground will be a help
"Vaniteux is a very good horse but the ground is very important to him. He has not had it good yet but he is very much in there for the Champion Hurdle and that is where he is going," said Henderson.
Considering some of his Festival options, the trainer said: "Ericht will run in the two-and-a-half-mile handicap chase). He ran very well in the Paddy Power and good ground helps him a lot. We might run French Opera in that race too as I think he just wants that bit further now, while Tanks For That will go for the Grand Annual.
"Golden Hoof and Cocktails At Dawn will go for the two-and-a-half-mile novices' handicap chase. Golden Hoof has got to give weight to Cocktails At Dawn but they could easily be handicapped the other way round. It is a good race for both of them and good ground is vital for both of them to be competitive.
"Bear's Affair is likely to go for the Pertemps Final where he will have Freddie Mitchell claiming seven pounds off his back.
"Hammersly Lake has had a wind operation and will go for the Coral Cup. He could run well. Lyvius is in there too. The secret to his success has been getting him there fresh. Volnay De Thaix will run in the Coral Cup but with him off 158 he is guaranteed top weight.
"Rolling Star is very talented and had his first run at Ascot over two-miles-three-furlongs the other day and he will head to the Coral Cup. He was favourite for the County Hurdle last year but he wants a trip.
"Vyta Du Roc has had a very good season and the only time he was beaten was in a Grade One by Parlour Games. I think going up to three miles in the Albert Bartlett will help him as he has been going through flat spots in his races." (© Daily Telegraph, London)