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Cheltenham Festival day four – Another Photo-finish just what Mullins is looking for

Friday is the fourth and final day of the Cheltenham Festival – and the day when the sport’s best steeplechasers line-up for the most revered race of the jumps calendar, the WellChild Cheltenham Gold Cup.

Al Boum Photo is the star attraction as he bids to win the race for the third successive season for his trainer Willie Mullins, potentially emulating greats such as Best Mate and Arkle in the process.

The most precocious four-year-olds in the hurdling sphere will battle it out in the JCB Triumph Hurdle, with the Denise Foster-trained Zanahiyr undoubtedly the one to beat on what he has done so far.

Mullins is again responsible for a leading fancy in the Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle as Stattler represents the yard in the race won by Monkfish last season.

The final afternoon also means the leading trainer and jockey titles can be awarded as the sun sets on what is hopefully the first and last Cheltenham Festival held behind closed doors.

Three in a row for Al Boum Photo?

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Paul Townend celebrates with Al Boum Photo after winning the Gold Cup
Paul Townend celebrates with Al Boum Photo after winning the Gold Cup (Jacob King/PA)

Al Boum Photo has a chance to become one of only five horses to win three Gold Cups as he lines up in the race that is the pinnacle of the jumps season. His preparation has run along similar lines to previous years with an easy win at Tramore on New Year’s Day, giving little away with regards to his chance against the likes of Champ, last season’s Ryanair winner, and Grade One Savills Chase champion A Plus Tard. The latter is the mount of Champion Hurdle heroine Rachael Blackmore – and do not discount Bryony Frost on Frodon, either.

Will Zanahiyr be triumphant?

Zanahiyr has been hugely impressive so far
Zanahiyr has been hugely impressive so far (PA)

The young stars of the hurdling division assemble for the Triumph Hurdle, with Zanahiyr the leading light. The gelding is now campaigned by Denise Foster and will face stiff competition from Alan King’s Tritonic, who was impressive when taking the Adonis Juvenile Hurdle at Kempton. Henry de Bromhead also has a live chance with the undefeated Quilixios, who won the Grade One Tattersalls Ireland Spring Juvenile Hurdle before leaving Gordon Elliott’s Cullentra yard.

Stattler set for Albert Bartlett stardom

Stattler is yet another leading chance for Willie Mullins
Stattler is yet another leading chance for Willie Mullins (PA)

The line-up for the three-mile Albert Bartlett Hurdle is led by Stattler, but Foster’s Fakiera is also a well-fancied runner despite finishing two lengths behind the former when both horses were beaten at Leopardstown by Gaillard Du Mesnil. Bringing less prestigious but more consistent form to the table Paul Nicholls’ Barbados Buck’s, who has triumphed in three successive novice hurdles in the run-up to the Festival.

Bonus chasing

Harry Skelton and Langer Dan (left) at Sandown
Harry Skelton and Langer Dan (left) at Sandown (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

Saturday’s easy Paddy Power Imperial Cup winner Langer Dan will bid for the £50,000 bonus which has only ever been won three times after making the cut for the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle with two to spare. The participation of Dan Skelton’s five-year-old was in the balance until the 48-hour declaration stage, as despite picking up a 5lb penalty he still needed around 20 of those above him to come out. However, he gets into the race close to the foot of the handicap and will be 5lb ‘well in’, having been raised 10lb since his Sandown win.

Champ headlines Henderson’s dual Gold Cup assault

Champ and Santini give Nicky Henderson a strong hand in his bid for a third victory in the WellChild Cheltenham Gold Cup.

Long Run provided the Seven Barrows handler with his first taste of success in the blue riband in 2011, before the popular Bobs Worth repeated the feat two years later.

The shortest priced of his two runners this year is Champ, who is out to claim a second Festival victory following his memorable last-gasp effort in last year’s RSA Chase.

An autumn wind operation meant the JP McManus-owned gelding missed the first half of the season – and when he did return, he unconventionally ran over just two miles in the Game Spirit at Newbury, performing with huge credit to finish second to Sceau Royal.

“Champ had his wind done, which consequently put us on the back foot,” said Henderson.

“We were aiming for the Denman at Newbury, but when the meeting got put back a week, we came up with the wacky idea of running him over two miles in the Game Spirit. We just felt he was going to have an easier race over two miles rather than over three.

“I was hoping we’d see what we saw as my head was on the chopping block for this ridiculous idea if it didn’t work. Thankfully it went well and his jumping at that pace was exceptional. We all came away very happy and he has been fine since.”

Champ’s stablemate Santini went down by a diminishing neck to Al Boum Photo in last year’s Gold Cup.

The nine-year-old has been a little underwhelming in three starts so far this season, but better is expected on his return to Cheltenham in a first-time visor.

Nicky Henderson with Santini
Nicky Henderson with Santini (David Davies/PA)

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Henderson added: “The Cotswold Chase (at Cheltenham) was off. Sandown took it on, but the ground was desperate on the day. I was satisfied with how he ran and it put us where we wanted him.

“He ran a fantastic race in the Gold Cup last year and I see no reason why he won’t run well again.”

Henry de Bromhead is also double-handed, with Savills Chase winner A Plus Tard joined by Minella Indo.

The latter was only narrowly denied by Champ at last year’s Festival and could hardly have made a more impressive start to this season in winning at Wexford and Navan.

However, he will return to Prestbury Park with something to prove, having fallen when favourite for the Savills Chase and finished only fourth behind Kemboy in last month’s Irish Gold Cup.

Minella Indo is an interesting runner
Minella Indo is an interesting runner (Gary Carson/PA)

“Our plan with Minella Indo was to be busy with him up to Christmas because we thought he lacked experience. He had two great runs at the start, winning a Grade Three and a Grade Two at Wexford and Navan, when he was very impressive,” said De Bromhead.

“Then we went to the Savills and it was disappointing he fell. It wasn’t the plan to run him again before the Gold Cup, but obviously we couldn’t go off the back of a fall, so looking at all our options we plumped for the Irish Gold Cup and I thought he ran respectably.

“We were adamant he needed a clear round and we got that. Kemboy got away from us after a mistake, but he still ran well.”

Native River, who won an epic Gold Cup in 2018, is out to become the first horse since Kauto Star to regain the crown.

The popular Colin Tizzard-trained 11-year-old also finished third in 2017 and fourth in 2019, but missed out last year through injury.

Tizzard, who will hand over the licence to his son Joe in the coming weeks, said: “He’s beaten the better English chasers and he’s the top-rated chaser in England.

“The fact that he’s 11 is why he’s a 16-1 shot. If he was an eight-year-old I’m sure he’d be in the first three in the betting.

“He’s in cracking form. He’s a Gold Cup winner and a class horse and we know he stays three miles and two furlongs.”

Native River is joined by stablemate Lostintranslation, who was a close-up third in last year’s Gold Cup but has failed to recapture that form so far this term.

Lostintranslation needs to bounce back
Lostintranslation needs to bounce back (Paul Harding/PA)

Tizzard added: “I wouldn’t dismiss Lostintranslation. He seems in absolutely great form – the best he’s been since I can remember.

“I’m sure you’re going to see him turning in as though he might win it, but as we’ve seen here before, horse have got to get up that hill.”

Runaway Peter Marsh Chase winner Royale Pagaille is a fascinating contender for Venetia Williams, who also saddles outsider Aso.

Connections deliberated long and hard as regards which race to go for with the Rich Ricci-owned Royale Pagaille, who is technically still a novice.

In the end they plumped for the Gold Cup, and jockey Charlie Deutsch is relishing the opportunity of a lifetime.

Royale Pagaille was brilliant at Haydock
Royale Pagaille was brilliant at Haydock (David Davies/PA)

He said: “I’ve loved riding him this season. I was gutted to miss out on him at Haydock last time, but I’m just really happy to keep the ride on him. Numerically it has been my best season to date and it would be a nice touch if I could win this on top.

“I didn’t get much of a say in which race he would run in, although I spoke to Venetia. However, I didn’t really find out what race he would run in until everyone else did. The horse is in good form and you have to have a go at a race like this when they are in good form – hopefully the hype will be right.

“I’m really lucky that I’ve had the support of Venetia and I’d like to think I’m doing my best to reward her as much as I can by riding her winners.”

He added: “You have to remember it was still a handicap he won last time. I think, like Venetia said, with the horses that finished in behind it was hard to know what sort of performance it was, but it was hard not to get excited by it as he won by a long way and quite easily.

“Like Venetia said, any of those good horses in the Gold Cup would have put in a similar performance at Haydock and Kempton.”

Masterful Henderson well-versed in potential Cheltenham pitfalls

For Nicky Henderson, the pressure of having horses at the Cheltenham Festival is not on the day but in the build-up.

His job is to get his team to the four biggest days in the jumps calendar in the best possible shape.

No one knows better than the master of Seven Barrows, who is the most successful UK trainer with 68 winners – the first coming way back in 1985.

He has good chances in four of the main events this year, with past winners Epatante and Buveur D’Air giving him a strong hand in the Unibet Champion Hurdle, Shishkin aiming to join the Seven Barrows trainer’s good record in the Sporting Life Arkle Trophy, Altior trying to regain his Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase crown and Champ and Santini two hopes of giving him a third WellChild Cheltenham Gold Cup.

Nicky Henderson with his major Cheltenham Festival runners (left to right) Champ, Altior, Shishkin, Epatante and Santini
Nicky Henderson with his major Cheltenham Festival runners (left to right) Champ, Altior, Shishkin, Epatante and Santini (David Davies/PA)

“The pressure bit is what we’re doing at home. It’s getting them there,” he said.

“It’s not so much what happens on the day, the last few weeks are an uncomfortable time. There are so many things that can go wrong.

“You’ve got to get it absolutely right. There are banana skins everywhere, and that is what we’re all nervous about – things that go wrong with your big boys.

“That puts us under pressure.”

The unpredictable British weather has not made life easy, either.

“The weather has been very variable. We’ve had as wet a winter as you can remember and a complete week of a freeze-up,” he said.

“It hasn’t been easy, and we’ve had a few difficult times with the horses themselves. There have been little patches when I haven’t been totally happy, but at the end of the day it’s coming together.

“We’ve had to change our preparations a bit. There was obviously the moving of the Newbury meeting, which changed our plans quite a bit, and we’ve had to improvise quite a lot.

“We’d normally take quite a big squad to Kempton to gallop on the all-weather a fortnight before Cheltenham, but we’ve not been able to do that this year, which has changed our run-up plans.”

Despite the pressures and inevitable mishaps, the Henderson string will be a force to be reckoned with from day one – starting with high hopes in the Arkle and Champion Hurdle.

Nicky Henderson with his Arkle Trophy hope Shishkin
Nicky Henderson with his Arkle Trophy hope Shishkin (David Davies/PA)
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Shishkin bids to join Henderson’s elite band of Arkle Trophy winners which include Remittance Man, Sprinter Sacre and Altior.

His task has been made a little easier with the withdrawal of the Willie Mullins-trained Energumene, although Allmankind still presents a potent threat.

“It’s amazing how this race has gone from about three or four weeks ago, when Shishkin was odds on and everybody said it was going to be boring,” he said.

“I think Allmankind was impressive again at Warwick. Now there’s a real fight, and people are seeing it as one of the big headline clashes of the week. He’s got a real battle on his hands.”

Despite the absence of Energumene, there will still be a formidable battalion of Irish raiders for Henderson and the British team to cope with – a factor he is very mindful of, especially after watching the Dublin Racing Festival, where Mullins in particular was unstoppable.

He said: “They just came up with another blockbuster. You suddenly think ‘crikey, I thought I was going to win that’ and all of a sudden Willie has come up with something and what are we going to do now? We’ve got to do our best, it’s been the same for a few years.

Willie Mullins and Paul Townend will be a big threat to Nicky Henderson's hopes at Cheltenham
Willie Mullins and Paul Townend will be a big threat to Nicky Henderson’s hopes at Cheltenham (Tim Goode/PA)

“That scoreboard that is down at the bottom of the parade ring, when it’s got the English and the Irish flag and the numbers – it’s pretty daunting when the score is 11-5 or something. Then you feel you are fighting a losing battle, but I’m not going into this thinking we’re fighting a losing battle.

“We’ve got a lot of very good chances. We thought Shishkin was a pretty good banker to go into last year, and Altior was always in that situation. Sprinter was always in that situation – you always had something you hoped you could hang your hat on, whatever happened.

“You always say you’ll settle for one, and I mean it more than ever this year, because I think it’s going to be tougher than ever.”

Henderson has won the Champion Hurdle three times in the last four years, with Buveur D’Air (2017 and 2018) and Epatante (2020). The pair represent him again – but both have to come back from defeats.

“Epatante was disappointing at Kempton because she was very good in the Fighting Fifth. She wasn’t herself in the Christmas Hurdle,” he said.

“Obviously, she’s better than that. I think we’re back in the right place now.

“She looks wonderful. If we’ve got her back she’s got as good a chance as any.

“The ground at Haydock found Buveur D’Air out. I thought we were going to get to the winner, but he emptied a bit. He was entitled to get a bit tired after his time off – but it did him good, and he’s in good shape.”

On day two, Altior will attempt to reclaim thr Champion Chase crown he made his own in 2017 and 2018.

“It hasn’t been easy. Having been invincible, it hasn’t gone his way,” said Henderson.

Altior bids to regain his Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase crown
Altior bids to regain his Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase crown (Paul Harding/PA)

“He is 11 now and he’s done very little wrong. One or two things have conspired against him.

Should Altior defy the odds then he would go close to matching the achievement of Sprinter Sacre, who overcame several problems to win a second Champion Chase in 2016 – three years after his first.

“With Sprinter – that was a miracle. I don’t think you could hope for two miracles, but this one would be very special if he could because he’s been a fantastic horse,” said Henderson.

Henderson named Sprinter Sacre’s second Champion Chase triumph as his most memorable day at Cheltenham.

“We’ve been very lucky. We’ve had some great days. You go back to See You Then (with three Champion Hurdle wins in the 1980s). I was wet behind the ears, it was so long ago, but I can remember it,” he said.

“I think you have to say, and a lot of people who were there on the day would say, Sprinter’s comeback in the Champion Chase was the most memorable day of my Cheltenham days … probably any day. It was an extraordinary scene.

Sprinter Sacre gave Nicky Henderson his most special moment at the Cheltenham Festival
Sprinter Sacre gave Nicky Henderson his most special moment at the Cheltenham Festival (Simon Cooper/PA)

“The public welcome and everything was unforgettable. It was very special.”

Long Run (2011) and Bobs Worth (2013) are Henderson’s two Gold Cup winners. He looks to Champ and Santini to give him a third.

Champ’s late surge to land the RSA Insurance Chase last year makes the trainer believe he will stay the distance.

“That was an extraordinary performance,” he said.

“It was sort of reminiscent of dear old Might Bite, where you thought he was out of it and not going to feature and from the second last to the last he was dropping back.

“It looked as though he was going to finish a moderate third jumping the last. I was focusing on those up front, and all of a sudden he came back into sight and swept past them – which proves an important thing, stamina.”

Champ on his way to the gallops at Nicky Henderson’s yard
Champ on his way to the gallops at Nicky Henderson’s yard (David Davies/PA)

Santini was runner-up in 2020 but has to bounce back from defeats in all his three starts of this campaign.

“He’s had a difficult season,” said Henderson, who is saddened there will be no crowds because of Covid-19 restrictions but delighted the meeting is going ahead.

“It’s going to be very strange, because we are going to be sitting or standing and suffering throughout the build-up to the races on our own, with no owners and nobody to talk to and nobody to hold each other’s hands,” he said.

“It’s very sad that we’re not going to have the people there to share it with us – but it’s terrific that we’re racing, and that’s the most important thing.

“Television comes into its own, and we’ll show the world everything we’ve got.”

Henderson relieved Game Spirit plan paid off for Champ

Nicky Henderson is glad his “ridiculous” idea of running Champ over two miles as a prep for the WellChild Cheltenham Gold Cup did not leave him with egg on his face.

Having had an interrupted season and his intended reappearance in the Denman Chase postponed by the weather, Henderson came up with the plan of running last year’s dramatic RSA winner over the minimum trip in the Game Spirit, once Altior had been ruled out.

Always prominent under Nico de Boinville, Champ exceeded nearly all expectations in finishing second to Sceau Royal and connections are now dreaming of winning the big one.

“It was an extraordinary performance in the RSA last year, reminiscent of dear old Might Bite,” said Henderson.

“I was watching what was going on up front, but then he came back into sight and swept by them. That proved one thing – his stamina.

“When we brought him in earlier this season, he was loose-schooling at Henrietta Knight’s and we could hear a noise we’d never heard before. It makes me wonder whether it had anything to do with what happened last year. Round about the second-last is where it could catch you out. It’s just a Henderson theory.”

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After a wind operation, Henderson went about planning the second half of the season for Champ.

“The Cotswold Chase was his alternative, but we thought that was better for Santini, certainly in that (soft) ground, then Champ would have come in for the Denman at Newbury – on the original weekend,” he said.

“The move back a week, as commendable as it was, just interfered with plans and we decided against Altior running. Sometimes crazy ideas come into your head in the middle of the night and it occurred to me that three miles, first time out, three weeks and five days before his objective, put him in the ‘bounce factor’ bracket.

“He’s an extraordinary horse because a week before the race he was working with On The Blind Side, a three-mile hurdler who isn’t good enough for the Stayers’ Hurdle. He’s not a good work horse, but it took Champ all day to get to him.

“My assistant, Charlie Morlock, said he didn’t exactly look like a horse to run over two miles, but Champ at home and Champ on a racecourse – you wouldn’t know it was the same horse as he does nothing at home.

“I was hoping we’d see what we saw as my head was on the chopping block for this ridiculous idea if it didn’t work. It worked because he could do it, but I didn’t know where he’d finish. It went well and his jumping at that pace was exceptional. We all came away very happy and he has been fine since.”

Champ on his way to the gallops at Seven Barrows
Champ on his way to the gallops at Seven Barrows (David Davies/PA)

Henderson confirmed De Boinville will stay on Champ for the Gold Cup, with Aidan Coleman riding last year’s runner-up Santini.

“Santini has had a difficult season. He started at Aintree when it was essentially a Flat race when they took the fences out. He’s a huge horse, he ran a very good race that day and in fact Frodon was behind him,” he said.

“We had no intention of running him in the King George, but there was just too much of a gap between Aintree and the Cotswold. He’s not a horse that sits still, he loves racing.

Nicky Henderson with Santini, last year's Gold Cup second
Nicky Henderson with Santini, last year’s Gold Cup second (David Davies/PA)

“Not surprisingly he found the track sharper than ideal, but it was still a good exercise for him. Then the Cotswold Chase was off, Sandown took it on but the ground was desperate. I was satisfied with him in third.”

While Champ is a much shorter price for Cheltenham, Henderson feels Santini may be going in under the radar if the ground is on the good side.

He said: “Champ’s run was obviously more eyecatching as he was running over the wrong trip. I’m very happy with Santini as it’s been a difficult winter with him. It’s not as if he’s coming in off three wins, but this is what he’s been waiting for.”

Champ delights Henderson with Game Spirit second

Nicky Henderson was thrilled to see Champ enhance his Cheltenham Gold Cup credentials in defeat after finding only Sceau Royal too strong in the Betfair Game Spirit Chase at Newbury.

Having been off the track since claiming a last-gasp victory in what is now the Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase at last season’s Cheltenham Festival, the JP McManus-owned Champ was originally due to make his long-awaited return in the three-mile Betfair Denman Chase.

However, with Newbury’s Betfair Super Saturday card pushed back eight days after the original fixture was frozen off, Henderson made the surprise decision to instead run Champ over an extended two miles in the Game Spirit, due to the meeting’s proximity to the Festival.

Ridden forward by Nico de Boinville back over this shorter trip, Champ travelled with zest and jumped with accuracy, before eventually being reeled in by Alan King’s proven two-miler Sceau Royal (3-1 favourite) and Daryl Jacob.

“He’s enjoyed himself there and he’s clearly not slow,” said a delighted Henderson.

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“The great thing was his jumping – it was deadly – and that will have done him the world of good.

“We boxed him over to Henrietta Knight’s the other day and he’s gone three times either way in the loose school. That (his jumping) needed ironing out and it clearly worked.

“He’s an exciting horse and much better on a racecourse than at home. You wouldn’t give two and sixpence for him on the grass gallop, but when he gets to the racecourse it’s like flicking a switch and he’s on the case full wallop!

“He’s got so much natural pace and he’s versatile. It was better to give him a kinder race today than go three miles, but on the evidence of the RSA last year, we know he stays.”

Bookmakers were clearly impressed by Champ’s display in being beaten just two lengths, with Coral cutting him to 6-1 from 8-1 for for the Gold Cup on March 19, making him their second-favourite behind dual winner Al Boum Photo.

Henderson added: “He was on the bridle until the second-last and now we have two days short of a month until the Gold Cup.

“We are now very much looking forward to Cheltenham with him.”

King was understandably proud of the admirable Sceau Royal, who was winning for the third time this season, having previously landed the Welsh Champion Hurdle at Ffos Las and the Elite Hurdle at Wincanton.

The nine-year-old, who fell on his most recent outing in the Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton, is entered in both the Queen Mother Champion Chase and the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham next month, but is not certain to line up in either.

Sceau Royal on his way to winning at Newbury
Sceau Royal on his way to winning at Newbury (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

King said: “He’s a wonderful little horse and it’s great for the owners, as they had a bad day yesterday, losing poor old L’Ami Serge.

“I’m not sure what happened to him at Kempton last time – it was so out of character for him to end up on the floor. He jumped absolutely super today, didn’t he?

“Whether he goes to Cheltenham will be very much ground dependent. If it’s soft ground we’ll wait – there’s the two-and-a-half-mile race at Aintree (Melling Chase) and the Celebration Chase at Sandown, so we’ll see.

“I’m not saying he won’t go to Cheltenham, but we would need it to dry out quite considerably, which can happen.

“We’ll enjoy today.”

Clan Des Obeaux seeks Nicholls’ 10th Denman Chase success

Dual King George hero Clan Des Obeaux is the star attraction in the Betfair Denman Chase at Newbury.

Trainer Paul Nicholls has saddled nine previous winners of Sunday’s Gold Cup trial, with Ditcheat greats Kauto Star (2007) and Denman himself (2008) both claiming victory en route to Cheltenham glory the following month.

Clan Des Obeaux, who won a rescheduled running of the Denman Chase at Ascot two years ago, is not even entered in the Gold Cup this season – with his dislike of Prestbury Park’s undulations well proven at this stage of his career.

The nine-year-old had to make do with minor honours in third when bidding for a hat-trick in the King George at Kempton on his latest appearance, but Nicholls hopes he can open his account for the campaign on a track where he is unbeaten in two starts.

He said: “Clan des Obeaux is in good form and he’s won this race before, when it was restaged two years ago at Ascot.

“There’s this thing that he’s better right-handed, but he’s run very well left-handed and has won at Newbury twice before. A flat track suits him nicely, so we won’t be complaining about that.

“His run at Haydock (when second in the Betfair Chase) was very good, and I think we can improve on Kempton.

“We’re in slightly calmer waters than his previous two at Haydock and Kempton, but this race has been the goal.”

Clan Des Obeaux (right) winning his first King George under Harry Cobden
Clan Des Obeaux (right) winning his first King George under Harry Cobden (Julian Herbert/PA)

Harry Cobden is back on board Clan Des Obeaux for the first time since finishing eighth in last season’s Gold Cup, and is looking forward to renewing the partnership.

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“He’s in really good form at home. I schooled him earlier in the week, and he’s been working well,” said the jockey.

“He came out of the King George well and he’s in good form, (so) we’re hoping for a good run.”

Nicholls also runs Secret Investor, who was runner-up to Native River in this race 12 months ago.

Secret Investor joins stablemate Clan Des Obeaux in the Denman Chase
Secret Investor joins stablemate Clan Des Obeaux in the Denman Chase (Jeff Holmes/PA)

He added: “Secret Investor wouldn’t want the ground too soft. He’s a much better horse on spring ground and when he’s fresh.

“With his rating in the early 160s, it makes it hard for him in handicaps, so he’ll run as well.”

Clan Des Obeaux’s biggest threat appears to be the talented but difficult to predict Lostintranslation.

Colin Tizzard’s charge won last season’s Betfair Chase at Haydock before going on to finish a close-up third in the Gold Cup, but has failed to fire both at Haydock and in the King George this season.

Assistant trainer Joe Tizzard is hoping the combination of a recent wind operation and an upturn in stable form in recent weeks will lead to an improved performance this weekend.

“We had him in the Ascot Chase and the Denman this weekend, and the decision to run at Newbury is purely based on ground,” said Tizzard.

“Had it been nice ground we were actually quite keen on the Ascot race over two-miles-five around there.

“Newbury takes the rain well, and we’ve had a couple of dry-ish days there this week. The ground going to be good to soft/soft, which is what we want for him.

“We’re happy with him going into the race.”

Nicky Henderson’s Champ was due to take on Clan Des Obeaux and Lostintranslation in the Denman Chase last weekend, but the decision to put the meeting back eight days after the original fixture was lost to frost prompted a surprise change of plan.

The JP McManus-owned gelding will instead make his first competitive appearance since his last-gasp victory at last year’s Cheltenham Festival over an extended two miles in the Betfair Game Spirit Chase.

While connections acknowledge the trip is on the short side for a horse viewed as a legitimate Gold Cup contender, the Game Spirit is viewed as a more suitable comeback target – with the blue riband less than four weeks away.

The owner’s racing manager Frank Berry said: “Nicky is happy with him – and rather than give him a slog over three miles, Nicky thought that maybe running over two miles might sharpen his jumping.

“He’s had a few niggly problems that have held him up, but Nicky thinks he’s in good form, so we’ll see how we get on.”

Paul NichoGreaneteen takes on Champ in the Game Spirit lls Stable Visit
Greaneteen takes on Champ in the Game Spirit (Andrew Matthews/PA)

The likely favourite for the Grade Two contest is Nicholls’ Greaneteen, who was last seen filling the runner-up spot behind stable companion Politologue in the Tingle Creek at Sandown in December.

“I think there is more to come, and next year he’ll be even better than he is now – he’s going to get better with experience,” said Nicholls.

“He’s in good shape and fit and ready to run very well.

“I don’t want to make the wrong decision and run him in the wrong race at Cheltenham, so this will be a good guide as to how much he’s improved and where we should end up going.”

The Ditcheat handler also runs Dolos and Magic Saint – while Alan King is represented by the high-class Sceau Royal, and Venetia Williams’ Fanion d’Estruval completes the sextet.

Five challenge Champ in Game Spirit return

Cheltenham Gold Cup contender Champ is set to face five rivals in the Betfair Game Spirit Chase at Newbury on Sunday.

Having been off the track since claiming a last-gasp victory in what is now the Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase at last season’s Cheltenham Festival, Nicky Henderson’s charge was originally due to make his long-awaited return in the three-mile Betfair Denman Chase.

However, with Newbury’s Betfair Super Saturday card pushed back eight days after the original fixture was frozen off, Henderson has decided to instead run Champ over an extended two miles in the Game Spirit, due to the meeting’s proximity to the Festival.

Henderson said: “Champ is absolutely flying at home, his prep has all gone to plan. Obviously, we changed the races and are going for the two-mile Betfair Game Spirit instead of the three-mile Betfair Denman, but we think it’s the right thing to do.

“He hasn’t run for nearly a year so it will be a less tough race over two miles than it would be over three. With less than four weeks until the Gold Cup, it’s getting a bit tight for him to have a hard race.

“It’s really great to have moved the meeting – I must say a huge well done to Newbury, Betfair, ITV and the BHA. These races are important.”

Nicky Henderson has a big day in store at Newbury
Nicky Henderson has a big day in store at Newbury (Bradley Collyer/PA)

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The likely favourite for the Grade Two contest is the Paul Nicholls-trained Greaneteen, who was last seen filling the runner-up spot behind stable companion Politologue in the Tingle Creek at Sandown in December.

The Ditcheat handler also runs Dolos and Magic Saint, while Alan King is represented by the high-class Sceau Royal.

Fanion d’Estruval, trained by Venetia Williams, completes the sextet.

In Champ’s absence, Nicholls’ dual King George hero Clan Des Obeaux will be a warm order for the Denman Chase.

The nine-year-old could finish only third when bidding for a hat-trick at Kempton on Boxing Day, but is odds-on to win this prize for the second time, having struck gold two years ago when the race was run at Ascot.

Clan Des Obeaux runs in the Betfair Denman Chase
Clan Des Obeaux runs in the Betfair Denman Chase (John Walton/PA)

Nicholls has a second string to his bow in Secret Investor.

Colin Tizzard’s Lostintranslation disappointed in the King George, just as he did last season, but undoubtedly has the talent to give Clan Des Obeaux a run for his money if he can bounce back to the form that saw him finish third in last year’s Gold Cup.

Amy Murphy steps stable star Kalashnikov up to three miles for the first time over fences, while David Bridgwater runs The Conditional in a bid to find out whether he deserves a tilt at Gold Cup glory.

Jeremy Scott has declared Dashel Drasher, but has confirmed he is set to take his chance in Saturday’s Betfair Ascot Chase.

Cepage (Venetia Williams) and Terrefort (Henderson) are the other hopefuls.

Buzz (yellow cap) on the way to victory at Ascot
Buzz (yellow cap) on the way to victory at Ascot (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

The most valuable race on the card is the £125,000 Betfair Hurdle, for which a maximum field of 24 runners are set to go to post.

Henderson, who has already won the race on five occasions, launches a three-pronged assault, with top-weight Buzz joined by Fred and Mister Coffey.

He said: “All three for the Betfair Hurdle are in great form at home. With the ground drying up, it was a slightly last-minute decision to declare Fred, but this has been the plan for Buzz and Mister Coffey all along.

“Kevin Brogan will ride Buzz and came down to sit on him last week, it’s great to have a top-class conditional on board, especially with Buzz being top-weight. I couldn’t pick between them – they’re all debating in the yard who will run best!”

Nicholls also has a trio of runners in Wild Max, Friend Or Foe and Thyme White.

Cadzand has a leading chance in the Betfair Hurdle
Cadzand has a leading chance in the Betfair Hurdle (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

Other leading fancies include Dan Skelton’s Cadzand, the Jonjo O’Neill-trained Soaring Glory and Edwardstone from Alan King’s yard.

Cadzand is on a hat-trick after wins at Warwick and Kempton, and Skelton said: “It’s great news the meeting has been rearranged, a huge well done to everyone at the BHA and Newbury for making sure these important races go ahead.

“Cadzand is ante-post favourite for the Betfair Hurdle, and we have had this race in mind for him for a while now. He looks well, I am happy with him, he jumped well this morning and is all set and ready to go.

“There will be no excuses for him on the day.”

Altior to bypass Newbury and take direct Festival route

Nicky Henderson has confirmed Altior will sidestep next Sunday’s rescheduled fixture at Newbury and head straight for the Cheltenham Festival, while stablemate Champ is set for a surprise outing in the Betfair Cheltenham Free Bet Pot Builder Game Spirit Chase.

The Seven Barrows handler had intended to let Altior bid for a fourth victory in the Game Spirit ahead of aiming to wrestle back his crown in the Queen Mother Champion Chase next month, while Cheltenham Gold Cup contender Champ was due to make his seasonal reappearance in the Betfair Denman Chase on the same card.

However, with the cold snap causing the entire meeting to be pushed back eight days, Henderson has revised running plans.

In a statement posted on his Twitter feed on Sunday, he said: “First of all I would like to congratulate Newbury, the sponsors, the BHA and ITV for rearranging yesterday’s Super Saturday card.

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“They have done a fantastic job under difficult circumstances and we are keen to support the meeting as best as we can, so with that in mind, the intention is still for Buzz, Mister Coffey and now possibly Fred as well to take their chance in the Betfair Hurdle.

“With regards to Altior and Champ, under the current circumstances and having discussed the situation in detail with all connections involved, we have come to the conclusion that Altior will head straight to the Cheltenham Festival without a run beforehand.

“He is in excellent form, but he does tend to take his races quite hard and we have therefore decided to continue his preparation at home and almost certainly an away-day at some stage in the next 10 days.”

Champ will be taking a sizeable drop in trip to an extended two miles in the Game Spirit, but Henderson feels it is the correct call with a tilt at Gold Cup glory in mind.

He added: “We have to decided to change things around with Champ, very much for the same reason and our close proximity to the Festival.

Champ after winning at last year's Cheltenham Festival
Champ after winning at last year’s Cheltenham Festival (Andrew Matthews/PA)

“He will now drop back down to two miles and contest the Game Spirit, instead of the Denman Chase.

“He hasn’t run for a year, so we could be in danger that three miles may be slightly too far for his first run of the season. He is a fresh horse and can be quite free in his races, so it would be harder to curtail enthusiasm and you’re never going to take as much out over two miles as you are over three.

“He could be keen and do too much, so in the interest of the Gold Cup being his ultimate goal, it is preferable to run over a shorter distance, which could stop him having a harder race than necessary and also help eliminate the risk of the bounce factor.

“He was a very useful horse over two and two and a half miles last season and I think that the Game Spirit could suit him well, both in the short term and the long term.”

Altior far from certain for rearranged Newbury date

Altior is far from certain to take up an opportunity at Newbury on Sunday week as connections weigh up the “pros and cons” of a race so close to Cheltenham.

The ground will be a major consideration, because it is well documented that testing conditions do not suit Nicky Henderson’s charge, particularly in view of the time he will have to recover before the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase.

The Berkshire track’s Betfair Super Saturday fixture will go ahead next Sunday instead, after an inspection on Friday confirmed freezing temperatures will prevent it taking place on its original date this weekend.

Nicky Henderson with Altior
Nicky Henderson with Altior (Bradley Collyer/PA)

It was already confirmed before the inspection that the new slot on February 21 had been provisionally arranged.

Altior was declared for the Cheltenham Free Bet Pot Builder Chase – better known as the Game Spirit – with leading Gold Cup contender Champ in the Betfair Denman Chase. The latter has not run since last year’s victory in the RSA Chase at the Festival.

Henderson said: “It’s highly commendable that the card could be going to be re-run and we’re grateful the opportunity to run Champ and Altior is available.

“As far as Altior is concerned, I need to discuss further with (owners) Patricia and Christopher Pugh to sum up the pros and cons of a race at this stage, particularly with a view to the going we might encounter on Sunday week, which is all important. This is relevant to the reduced time gap between the two races.

Champ in winning action at Cheltenham
Champ in winning action at Cheltenham (Tim Goode/PA)

“As far as Champ is concerned, he is coming off a longer lay off and it is more important that he has a race prior to the Gold Cup, which, in fairness, is only two days short of a month between the two.

“Obviously we will keep all options open and everybody up to date with our plans.”

Henderson added: “I must say it will be a great effort on behalf of Newbury, the British Horseracing Authority, the sponsors and ITV should it all come off.

“It will be a big effort from everybody involved, and we’re very grateful.”

Henderson sticking to Newbury plan despite possible rescheduling

Nicky Henderson has confirmed Altior and Champ will take up their respective engagements at Newbury – even if Saturday’s high-profile card is rescheduled for the following weekend.

The Berkshire track’s Betfair Super Saturday fixture is already in serious doubt following several days of sub-zero temperatures, with an inspection called for 8.30am on Friday.

Discussions have been taking place about the possibility of the entire card being switched to a later date, and it is believed that a Sunday slot on February 21 is the favoured option.

Henderson said earlier this week he would “desperately request” that both the Betfair Denman Chase and the Cheltenham Free Bet Pot Builder Chase – better known as the Game Spirit – were saved, to give Champ and Altior the opportunity to run ahead of the Cheltenham Festival.

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And speaking on Thursday morning, the Seven Barrows handler gave his backing to restaging the meeting, which also includes the lucrative Betfair Hurdle, should it be on Sunday week.

Henderson said: “It’s fine by me. It’s the plan to run both Altior and Champ – they’ve got to have runs.

“We’re discussing everything with owners and things and it’s frustrating, but really nothing changes.

“I need to talk to Patricia Pugh about Altior and JP (McManus) about Champ, obviously. (But) if they send the whole card there (February 21), then we’ll be there.

“It’s amazing really that he (Keith Ottesen, clerk of the course at Newbury) says he doesn’t expect the ground to be that bad, which would help, as we wouldn’t want it very soft with that timing.

“I must say it will be a great effort on behalf of Newbury, the British Horseracing Authority, the sponsors and ITV should it all come off.”

Champ after winning at Cheltenham last March
Champ after winning at Cheltenham last March (Andrew Matthews/PA)

He added: “The horses were all geared up for this weekend and we’re just going to have to explain to them that Henderson has got his dates wrong!

“It will be a big effort from everybody involved and we’re very grateful.”

Having suffered just his second defeat over obstacles when beaten by Nube Negra in the Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton on his latest appearance, Altior will head to Newbury aiming to prove he still has what it takes to land a third Queen Mother Champion Chase next month.

Champ, meanwhile, will be looking to confirm himself a legitimate Cheltenham Gold Cup contender in the Denman Chase, having been off the track since his last-gasp victory in the RSA Chase at last year’s Festival.

Champ set to return in Denman Chase

Champ is set to put his Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup claims on the line in the Betfair Denman Chase at Newbury on Saturday.

The nine-year-old is among 10 entries for the Grade Two contest over three miles.

Trained by Nicky Henderson, Champ has not raced since winning the RSA Chase at Cheltenham in March due to several minor issues, but is ready to return to action.

“Nicky’s very happy with him and the plan is to run there,” said Frank Berry, racing manager to owner JP McManus.

“He’s had a few niggly problems, but he seems to be back now. Lets hope the racing is on and we get there on Saturday.

“We’ll be looking to be forward to it and hope everything goes well.

Clan Des Obeaux could take on Champ at Newbury
Clan Des Obeaux could take on Champ at Newbury (Steven Paston/PA)

“It would be most important to get a run into him before the Gold Cup.”

Champ’s potential rivals are headed by Paul Nicholls’ dual King George VI Chase winner Clan Des Obeaux and the Colin Tizzard-trained Lostintranslation, who was third in last year’s Gold Cup.

Nicholls can also call on Secret Investor while the list is completed by Aso, Ballyoptic, Cepage, Definitly Red, Kalashnikov and The Conditional.

Altior has just five possible rivals as he bids to win the Betfair Cheltenham Free Bet Pot Builder Chase for a fourth time.

The dual Queen Mother Champion Chase hero will attempt to get back on track after being beaten by Nube Negra on his reappearance at Kempton in December.

The Alan King-trained Sceau Royal, runner-up to Altior in this race 12 months ago, is in the mix with Fanion D’Estruval, Greanateen, Magic Saint and Sky Pirate completing the sextet.

Henderson making plans for Newbury and Sandown

Nicky Henderson reports Champ in good order for his belated return to competitive action at Newbury on February 13.

Last season’s Cheltenham Festival winner is unbeaten in four visits to the Berkshire track, and will be having his first outing since his eyecatching victory in the RSA Insurance Novices’ Chase, where he charged up the hill to deny Minella Indo.

Henderson said: “He is all set for the Denman Chase and we’re looking forward to it.”

With Haydock still under threat from the elements on Saturday, Henderson may have to reroute Buveur D’Air to the Contenders Hurdle at Sandown on February 6.

The former dual Champion Hurdler has not raced since a piece of wood from a hurdle became lodged in his hoof when beaten by Cornerstone Lad in last season’s Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle, requiring him to undergo surgery.

His trainer said: “It looks like we will have to forget Haydock and head to Sandown. It’s a race he’s won three times and it will be good to get him back.”

Buveur D’Air started 1-4 for the race in 2017, 1-16 in 2018 and 1-5 in 2019.

Buveur D’Air looks set to return in the Contenders Hurdle at Sandown
Buveur D’Air looks set to return in the Contenders Hurdle at Sandown (Simon Galloway/PA)

Back to Newbury and Henderson is readying a team of three in the Betfair Hurdle, headed by Buzz, who could end up with top-weight in the £125,000 contest.

The Seven Barrows handler will back up the Thurloe Thoroughbreds-owned gelding with Mister Coffey and the mare Marie’s Rock.

Henderson landed the prize for Thurloe syndicates with Sharpical in 1998l, as well as Geos in 2000 and 2004. He has an exemplary record in a race originally known as the Schweppes, and is pleased with this year’s challengers.

He said: “Buzz has always had the race on his radar, but after his good efforts this season will have to carry top-weight. He’s in good form and very well in himself.

“Marie’s Rock had been off for a while when she returned here in November and will all being well do some work on Saturday.

“Mister Coffey is in very good form and an intended runner.”

Cotswold date pencilled in for Champ return

Nicky Henderson has confirmed the Cotswold Chase as the likely comeback target for Cheltenham Gold Cup contender Champ.

The JP McManus-owned gelding has not been seen in competitive action since charging home to beat the Irish pair of Minella Indo and Allaho in an epic finish to the RSA Chase at last season’s Cheltenham Festival, with an autumn wind operation delaying his return.

With connections losing the race against time to get him back for the Savills Chase at Leopardstown earlier this week, Henderson admitted options were limited – and even mooted a potential spin over hurdles.

However, the Seven Barrows handler now views the Cotswold Chase as as a suitable starting point for the season, even if it means he could clash with his stablemate Santini, who won the race last year before going on to finish runner-up in the Gold Cup.

Of Champ, Henderson said in his Unibet blog: “I’m pleased to say that he is in excellent form and the obvious race would be the Cotswold Chase at Cheltenham on Festival Trials Day.

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“It might have to be for Santini as well, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, because there’s also the Denman Chase at Newbury in February.

“Champ is coming along great and Nico (de Boinville) had a spin on him on Christmas Eve and he’s been jumping very well.

“There is nothing else before the Cotswold Chase, so I’d imagine he’d have a racecourse gallop beforehand which should put him spot on.”

It was a mixed Christmas period for Henderson, with star novice Shishkin impressing at Kempton, but both Epatante and Altior beaten at the Sunbury venue.

Shishkin is likely to have one more run before heading for the Arkle at Cheltenham, while Henderson feels it would be dangerous to dismiss Altior’s chances of winning a third Queen Mother Champion Chase despite his surprise defeat at the hands of Nube Negra.

Henderson said: “Shishkin has come out of Kempton very well and I’m extremely happy with him.

“I want to give him one more run before the Arkle and it will be in either the Kingmaker at Warwick or Game Spirit at Newbury, but I also have Altior pencilled in for that (Game Spirit).

“Altior is fine and there is nothing else to report except to say he will most certainly not be retired and you didn’t see the real him the other day.

“He’s probably getting to that stage where he may be losing a bit of that speed that has always been so potent, but the way he jumps at home you’d have no reason to think he’s slowing down – he’s still like a rocket.

“I would think there is every possibility that he will be given an entry in the Ryanair Chase, but we haven’t really discussed it and at the moment the Champion Chase remains the goal.”

Henderson had less positive news on exciting novice hurdler Dusart, who looks likely to miss the Cheltenham Festival.

He said: “I’m afraid you won’t be seeing Dusart for quite a while because we’ve had a very unfortunate setback and for the time being we’ll have to consider he is out of action.

“Without going into all the unnecessary gory details, he had an accident at home and is still at the equine hospital, but he’s doing well and will definitely be back, although I cannot say if he will be back this season or not.

“I’ve got to say it’s very doubtful that he will be going to Cheltenham.”

Nicky Henderson mulling hurdles option for Champ

Nicky Henderson could consider running Champ over hurdles due to limited options over fences for his Cheltenham Festival winner.

Henderson had been hoping to run Champ, who won last season’s RSA Chase in dramatic style, in the Savills Chase over Christmas but felt the Leopardstown contest was coming too soon.

With the Cotswold Chase at the end of next month, in which stablemate Santini is also due to run, and the Denman Chase in February the only other suitable races, Henderson may be forced into a return to the smaller obstacles.

“I’ve got work to do. We tended to his wind earlier in the season and that put us back, which is why we are late,” said Henderson.

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“I was trying to get to Ireland, but we were always fighting a bit of a losing battle. We’re nearly there and another fortnight would have done him, but another fortnight takes us nowhere.

“There really are only two races between now and the Gold Cup he can run in – the Cotswold Chase at the Trials Meeting and the Denman Chase at Newbury. They are the only two recognised races for the staying chasers, they are all you can do which is why you’ve got to consider hurdling.

“I don’t particularly want to, especially with Champ as he needs all the experience he can get jumping fences.

“He has been jumping extremely well. We’ve been doing a lot of schooling and he spent a few days with Henrietta Knight doing special exercises and was very good. We’re very pleased with that part of his preparation.”

Buveur D’Air has not been seen since an injury in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle over a year ago
Buveur D’Air has not been seen since an injury in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle over a year ago (PA Wire)

In the same JP McManus ownership, dual champion hurdler Buveur D’Air is well on the road to recovery after an injury limited him to just one start last term.

“The Contenders Hurdle is very much the plan for Buveur D’Air, and I’d really rather one before it. If there was something in the middle of January that would be great,” said Henderson, speaking on a zoom call ahead of Kempton’s Ladbrokes Christmas Festival.

“He’s coming on very well, he worked on Saturday and every day he is getting better. Touch wood, the injury has not held us back, as when we started the season he was lame.

“All has gone very well and the injury has not been any interference. All we do differently is keep him off the all-weather, he does all his work on grass.

“His work has been excellent and we have every hope and ambition we can get to Cheltenham. He’s got to meet Epatante. He’s a two-miler and she’s a two-miler so we are very lucky.

Champ misses Savills Chase

Nicky Henderson has decided against sending his Cheltenham Festival winner Champ to Leopardstown for his first run of the season.

Champ benefited from an inspired ride by Barry Geraghty to win the RSA Chase in March, but has not been seen since.

Henderson had been keen on sending the JP McManus-owned gelding to Ireland for the Savills Chase over Christmas, but he now feels the race will come to soon.

The Seven Barrows handler posted on Twitter: “Unfortunately Champ will not be travelling to @LeopardstownRC over Christmas.

“He is not quite ready to run, so we will have to wait a bit longer for his seasonal debut.

“He has been schooling brilliantly, so we are very excited to see him on a racecourse as soon as we can!”