Nicky Henderson admits to “reservations” as he prepares Santini for his first start of the season in the William Hill Many Clouds Chase at Aintree.
Having been beaten just a neck by Al Boum Photo in last season’s Cheltenham Gold Cup, the eight-year-old is likely to be a short price to see off a former Gold Cup winner in Native River, as well as the popular Frodon, on Merseyside.
However, Henderson points to a lack of race-fitness and the sharp nature of the track as reasons why his dour stayer may not be seen to best effect on Saturday.
“Santini takes an awful lot of getting ready, because he takes a huge amount of work,” said the Seven Barrows handler.
“I have a few reservations, because I don’t think Aintree is the greatest track for him – he’s a big horse who loves to gallop.
“He loves jumping and he loves working – you can’t do enough.
“It’s a good, competitive field. His first run last year wasn’t awe-inspiring at Sandown in a graduation chase, so I hope he’s not going to do that to us again, but then he won the Cotswold and was second in the Gold Cup.
“Three and a bit (miles) round Cheltenham is a different ball game compared to three miles at Aintree, but he has to start somewhere – and there really is nowhere else.
“He wasn’t ready for the Betfair Chase, and I don’t think Haydock would have been any better for him anyway.”
With stable jockey Nico de Boinville in action at Sandown to ride Altior in the Tingle Creek, Jerry McGrath will partner Santini for the first time since steering him to win a Grade Two novice hurdle at Cheltenham in January 2018.
Henderson added: “Jerry schooled him for the first time the other day. It was the first time we’d put the cheekpieces on at home (since the Gold Cup), and they do make a very big difference – it really sharpens him up.
“Jerry had a good day last Saturday, winning the Gerry Feilden on Floressa and finishing fifth in the Ladbrokes Trophy on Beware The Bear. Richard Kelvin-Hughes (Santini’s owner) said straightaway he’d have Jerry. He deserves it, and I’ve every confidence in him.
“It will be a very interesting race.”
Colin Tizzard’s Native River is bidding to win the Grade Two contest for a second time, following a 33-length triumph 12 months ago.
Injury prevented the bold-jumping chestnut bidding for a second Gold Cup win in March, but he is reported to be in rude health for his reappearance.
Joe Tizzard, assistant to his father, said: “It’s a hell of a little race, but he seems in as good a form as he was 12 months ago. He’s done everything we’ve asked of him at home, and we’re excited about running him.
“It’s a competitive race, but if he runs like he did last year then he deserves to be there.”
The Paul Nicholls-trained Frodon made a brilliant start to his season with a tremendous weight-carrying performance in handicap company at Cheltenham in October.
Winner of the Ryanair Chase in 2019 and fourth in the same race last season, Frodon is this year being trained with the Gold Cup in mind.
Nicholls told Betfair: “He was awesome last time at Cheltenham, full of enthusiasm as usual, jumping from fence to fence on his way to a brilliant victory.
“He is now up to a mark of 169 – which pretty much rules him out of handicaps. With the sharp left-handed track and conditions perfect for Frodon, I was surprised to see him as third favourite for this – because he is the form horse, having given heaps of weight at Cheltenham in October to Cloth Cap who then hacked up in the Ladbrokes Trophy on Saturday.
“He has improved for that run, won the Old Roan Chase here two years ago and has a big chance.”
A quality field is completed by Keeper Hill – fourth in both the Charlie Hall at Wetherby and the Betfair Chase at Haydock this season for Warren Greatrex – and Nick Alexander’s Grand National hope Lake View Lad