Though tough viewing for Jess Harrington and Willie Mullins, it would have been far more palatable for Nicky Henderson, as Sizing John and Yorkhill failed to land a blow in the Leopardstown Christmas Chase.
Road To Respect led home a trio of Gigginstown runners, causing something of an upset in the process. Harrington’s Gold Cup winner had been sent off a short-priced favourite, but he never looked comfortable, jumping erratically before fading for a seventh-place finish. Distressed post-race, he’ll have tests to see if an explanation can be found, and hopefully will return to his best later in the season.
Yorkhill refused to settle, pulling his way to the front, and had little chance of lasting home. He’ll be dropped back in trip, though Mullins clearly has some thinking to do before choosing future targets.
As for Road To Respect, he continues on an upward curve that now sees him third best in the betting for Cheltenham’s Blue Riband. A Festival winner in March, he’s a realistic contender, and only a fool would dismiss him out-of-hand.
But it’s Henderson that would have been the most satisfied of all onlookers, and his King George winner, Might Bite, now stands alone as favourite for the Gold Cup in March. The team at Seven Barrows are going through a purple patch, and Henderson has plenty of firepower at his disposal. He now has the favourite for the Gold Cup, the Champion Hurdle and the Champion Chase. But along with those established performers he also has a battalion of talented youngsters waiting to make their mark at the highest level.
Many have already displayed their potential, and look capable of playing a major part in the spring festivals.
On The Blind Side is currently third in the market for the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham, having impressed at Sandown earlier in the month. He has an attractive pedigree, being by Stowaway out of a Supreme Leader mare, and has already won at Cheltenham. Out with a slight injury at present, he should be back in time for a prep-run, before heading to Prestbury Park. Though Samcro looks likely to oppose come March, this fella looks the real deal and will prove a match for anyone.
Claimantakinforgan is another talented young hurdler who is two from two this term, having been a leading bumper performer during the last campaign. He’s not flashy but he gets the job done. He took the Grade Two Supreme Trial at Ascot last week, staying on well from the last flight. Cheltenham’s stiff finish should suit.
Henderson often sends his most talented newcomers to Newbury, and at the beginning of December he had the first and second home in a 2m4f novices’ hurdle. Santini and Chef Des Obeaux looked hugely promising with the former slightly more accurate over the obstacles. He’s a big scopey sort, that should make into a nice chaser in time. He’s set to run at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day, and may well have the ability to become a Ballymore contender.
Chef Des Obeaux followed the Newbury run with a victory at Uttoxeter last week. He’s another from the Saddler Maker production line (Apple’s Jade), and as such could have plenty more to offer.
Pacific De Baune is another that showcased his talent at Newbury. Runner-up in an Irish point, he’d strengthened up over the summer, and romped to a seven-length success from Alan King’s Potterman. It took a while for the grey to get going, but when the penny finally dropped he powered clear of the field. He’s another Henderson youngster with tons of potential.
And talking of youngsters, the yard, as ever, has a talented bunch of juveniles likely to take high order with the Triumph Hurdle as a major target.
Apple’s Shakira (another Saddler Maker) has looked a potential star in her two victories at Cheltenham. She’s currently favourite for the Triumph in March, and few would argue that she deserves her place at the head of the market. But Henderson has other leading hopes, not least We Have A Dream.
Owned by Simon Munir and Isaac Souede, this French import was sensational last time at Doncaster. The gelding has won both his UK starts by 10 lengths, doing his best work at the end of the races. He looks a very exciting prospect.
Henderson also has Style De Garde amongst his ranks. This French recruit finished ahead of We Have A Dream in France, and is owned by the Highclere Thoroughbred team. Yet another Newbury winner, he thrashed a field of 12 under a penalty. He’s a Kapgarde gelding, and yet another with a bright future.
It seems crazy to say it, especially after such a dominant campaign last season, but this could prove to be Henderson’s most powerful team ever assembled. That may sound somewhat fanciful, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen such depth of talent at Seven Barrows.