Mullins’ firepower giving Henderson food for thought

Nicky Henderson is “praying” Newbury’s meeting gets the go-ahead on Saturday so he can put the finishing touches to several of his Cheltenham team in preparation for taking on the in-form Willie Mullins squad.

As well as vital prep races for the likes of Altior and Champ, having witnessed Mullins’ domination of the Dublin Racing Festival, Henderson knows nothing less than 100 per cent will do at Cheltenham.

“I wish I hadn’t watched it actually – it was slightly frightening!” said Henderson of Leopardstown’s two-day fixture.

“I certainly haven’t shown it to one or two horses. I don’t think Epatante needed to see Honeysuckle, or Shishkin needed to see Willie’s two-mile novice (Energumene) and Altior needed to see Chacun Por Soi.

Honeysuckle won the Irish Champion Hurdle for a second time
Honeysuckle won the Irish Champion Hurdle for a second time (Niall Carson/PA)

“I saw them and it gave me a mighty fright. I’ve never seen anything like it. Well done Willie – it was the most staggering weekend.”

The Dublin Racing Festival also gives the Irish horses an extra week to get over their exertions before Cheltenham, and Henderson is just hoping for no hiccups at this late stage.

“The timing for them is better than this weekend for us, to be honest, to Cheltenham. From the Irish point of view, it will be perfect,” Henderson said on a call hosted by Great British Racing.

“There’s always pressure. These aren’t trials, but for Champ (in the Denman Chase) it is a form of prep race as he hasn’t had one since the RSA. For Altior (in the Game Spirit), it’s more of a trial as I need to prove he’s a Champion Chase horse.

“He’s already won it, but he didn’t make it last year because of a splint.

Altior (right) needs to bounce back from defeat at Kempton
Altior (right) needs to bounce back from defeat at Kempton (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

“The dream is still alive with them, but by Saturday night the dream could be over and that would be blisteringly disappointing, because when you think you have a Gold Cup horse and a Champion Chaser, I need to go to bed on Saturday night still having them.

“If everything went badly wrong on Saturday from our point of view, it would be like being stabbed in the back, so we go into these sorts of days with a certain amount of trepidation.

“If for some reason Champ’s jumping went to pot, we’ve left him in the Stayers’ Hurdle so he could go down that route, but I know (owner) JP (McManus’) team and ourselves see that as a very reserve engagement.”

While Henderson is already worrying about the competition at Cheltenham, of more concern is that this meeting beats the weather.

“If this meeting was lost, we’d desperately request that both these races, and the Betfair Hurdle as that is important too, were saved. We’ve got to get runs into them,” he said.

“We could do an awful lot with them at home, but having watched last weekend in Ireland, we are going to have to be pencil sharp to take on Willie and everybody. You can see how good the opposition is, so we have got to be razor sharp.

“I’m praying because we are primed for it, I don’t need another week. Often you’d buy another, but I really don’t need it because it’s starting to get close to Cheltenham, so anything like a hard race and it’s getting short enough to recover.

Champ, who won the RSA Chase under Barry Geraghty last season, return on Saturday
Champ, who won the RSA Chase under Barry Geraghty last season, return on Saturday (Tim Goode/PA)

“I seriously hope and pray that if this weekend was unable to go ahead, they could reschedule the two big races, the Betfair Hurdle and I’d like the bumper as well. It would be nice to have all of them.

“We need to answer back this weekend, we need to stake a claim, all of us, or we’ll get whitewashed and we don’t want that. We’ve got a strong team with Altior, Champ, Santini and the Champion Hurdle squad is strong. Honeysuckle versus Epatante will be fascinating. Buveur D’Air wants his crown back as well.

“We’ve got to look forward to what is coming ahead.”

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