Henderson hoping for royal approval on the march to Cheltenham riches

Unquestionably Constitution Hill would be the best chance. Jonbon would hold a fair shout. A victory for Marie’s Rock, Shishkin, Luccia or Epatante would be a bonus.

Yet arguably victory for any of those Nicky Henderson runners at the Cheltenham Festival would not give the Seven Barrows handler more delight than seeing Steal A March land the Pertemps Network Final.

The eight-year-old is one of five – or possibly six – runners the 72-year-old Lambourn handler will saddle in the race on March 17, insisting with a customary chuckle: “I’m doing a Willie Mullins.”

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Unlike his good friend and rival Mullins, and while not averse to running stablemates against each other, Henderson is seldom keen to tread that path.

However, he is blessed with a particularly strong team of hurdlers who have few options but to take each other on.

Hot Champion Hurdle favourite Constitution Hill could be joined by a former winner of the race in Epatante, while First Street is another contender.

Marie’s Rock is a potential runner in an open-looking Stayers’ Hurdle, while Luccia heads a top team of novices, with Balco Coastal and Jonbon a pair of chasers who have massive potential.

Steal A March is a particular favourite, though. He gave Henderson huge satisfaction by winning a lowly Worcester handicap hurdle on June 4, as the Mount Nelson gelding provided the Queen with a winner during her Platinum Jubilee weekend celebrations.

Barbers Shop produced some memorable results for Henderson and The Queen
Barbers Shop produced some memorable results for Henderson and The Queen (David Jones/PA)

Henderson and the Queen enjoyed some fantastic and hugely-popular successes together, most notably with the classy chaser Barbers Shop.

Now that the purple, scarlet and gold colours have been transferred to the King, they will be carried in the Pertemps, a fiercely-competitive handicap hurdle over three miles.

Henderson is looking forward to seeing a royal presence at the Festival in a race where he could saddle stablemates Scarpia, Walking On Air, Captain Morgs, Call Me Lord and Mill Green.

“I very much hope there will be some representatives of the owners, which will be good for racing and good for Cheltenham,” said Henderson.

“He won on Derby day, which was very special. We were all trying to get winners that weekend for the Queen.”

Steal A March was a narrow runner-up on his seasonal bow in a decent Newbury handicap and then scored at Wincanton on Boxing Day.

“He has always been capable,” added Henderson. “He has improved a fair bit all of a sudden.

“I like his chances in the Pertemps. We have got quite a strong team for the contest to be fair, but I was impressed with him the last time. It would be nice for the King should he win. It would be absolutely great for the sport.”

The team at Seven Barrows will hope that a winner or two will be in the bag by the time the Pertemps is run on the meeting’s third day.

“The first day is our strongest day, so we need something to happen on Tuesday, because it gets harder work from there on. We start panicking after that,” he quipped.

Yet there is no stronger favourite at the meeting than Constitution Hill, who will bid to give the trainer a record ninth success in the Champion Hurdle following the victories of See You Then (1985, 1986, 1987), Punjabi (2009), Binocular (2010), Buveur D’Air (2017, 2018) and Epatante (2020).

Unbeaten in five starts, he has barely been tested and was 17 lengths too good for Epatante on his last run in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton Park.

Nicky Henderson with Champion Hurdle favourite Constitution Hill
Nicky Henderson with Champion Hurdle favourite Constitution Hill (David Davies/PA)

He might potentially be the best in a very long line of superstars that Henderson has trained and arguably could become the highest-rated hurdler in history, higher even than the legendary Night Nurse.

Despite hearing all the perfectly valid reasons for thinking the Michael Buckley-owned six-year-old is the horse of a lifetime, Henderson is quick to quell such talk.

“Constitution Hill is doing freakish things, but he’s only had five runs in his life and you have to remember it is very early days in his career,” he said.

“Normally, when you are going to a Champion Hurdle, you go with a horse who has had 10 or 12 races or something.

“It is hard to gauge him really, except he has just done nothing wrong.

“He has a long way to go before I’d say he is potentially the best horse I’ve trained. It took me 10 years to say that Sprinter Sacre was.

“I like the involvement in a horse like this as you feel like you have achieved something, and people want to be part of a horse that has touched them somewhere.

“Horse racing is still a great sport and there is a great community involved. It is a great game that a lot of people really enjoy. What they do is appreciate very good people and very good horses.

“Everybody wants to know what he is up to in the village (Lambourn) but there are a lot of other horses here, and in other yards, that are just as important that have big days ahead.

“We all want him to be this superstar. We have been lucky having the Sprinters and Altiors, however you never get blase about it.”

Luccia is nominated as a horse with a big future
Luccia is nominated as a horse with a big future (David Davies/PA)

This time last year, Henderson nominated a horse outside of the obvious big guns that excited him. He offered up Marie’s Rock, who duly won the David Nicholson Mares’ Hurdle.

Ask him the same question 12 months on and he replies: “I think Luccia looks pretty promising for the future. Steal A March would be nice, wouldn’t it?”

At the meeting considered the Olympics of National Hunt racing, over the years he has saddled 72 winners, including six in 2012.

The last time he came away from Prestbury Park without a victory was 2008, so it would be a major shock should he fail to add to the laurels in any of the 28 races.

And with only Mullins fielding a stronger team over the four days, Henderson is heading there with plenty of hope.

“Cheltenham is very special isn’t it? Anybody who is in this game can’t deny it,” he added.

“It’s the four days which we all look forward to. I know it gets over-hyped. It gets everywhere, but there’s nothing quite like it.

“We all look forward to it, but you are tip-toeing on eggshells in the build-up, hoping the horses stay sound. Getting them there fit, healthy and in one piece is a major job in itself, never mind winning.”

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