Henderson remains upbeat on Buveur D’Air despite comeback defeat

Nicky Henderson was disappointed but not dismayed after dual Champion Hurdle hero Buveur D’Air suffered defeat on his long-awaited return to action at Haydock.

Having claimed Cheltenham Festival glory in both 2017 and 2018, the JP McManus-owned 10-year-old fell when bidding for the hat-trick the following season.

Hopes of regaining his crown last March were dashed by a freak injury suffered in the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle, where he returned with a piece of wood lodged in his foot, which later required surgery and a significant period of rehabilitation.

It has been a long road back for Buveur D’Air, but such was his well being, Henderson changed a long-term plan to run at Sandown next month and instead bring him out a fortnight earlier in The New One Unibet Hurdle on Merseyside.

Despite 14-month absence, he was widely expected to make a successful return against two rivals – but despite receiving weight from both eventual winner Navajo Pass and last year’s victor Ballyandy, the 8-11 favourite was unable to reel in Donald McCain’s front-runner.

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However, Henderson was optimistic overall as he assessed the performance post-race.

“He’s jumped like he always used to – it’s very quick and accurate, isn’t it?,” said the Seven Barrows handler

“Nico (de Boinville) thought he’d got the winner covered going to the last, but then he took a big blow.

Nicky Henderson with Buveur D'Air
Nicky Henderson with Buveur D’Air (Steven Paston/PA)

“He doesn’t like that very heavy ground. People will say I would say that, but there you go.

“He’s got a run under his belt and will come on tons for that. I’m still pleased we got on and did that today, rather than wait for Sandown in a fortnight’s time, as he wouldn’t be any straighter then – and we’ve now got more time to play with between now and March.”

Buveur D’Air is a general 20-1 shot to become the fifth horse to win a third Champion Hurdle, with Epatante – who won the race in her stablemate’s absence last season – the 9-4 favourite, despite also being beaten on her latest outing in the Christmas Hurdle.

Of Buveur D’Air, Henderson added: “We’ll stick to the plan and go for the Champion Hurdle.

“I’m disappointed not to win today. Of course you want to win and win on the bridle, but that was hardly going to happen in that ground – they’ve done well to race, to be honest with you.

“I do (think the old Buveur d’Air is in there), and he was bound to need it today. He looked big to me, the scales were saying that he’s lighter than he looks, but he does look big, and he needed to go and do something like that.

“I’d have preferred a different result, but that’s what we have to take. We know where we are and know what we’ve got to do.

“He pulled up sound and everything is right. There are no lumps or bumps – or pieces of wood sticking out!

“He’ll be tired tonight, there’s no doubt about that. He’s not going to run again before the Champion Hurdle, but you can go back to work and I’d say he’s almost certain to have a racecourse gallop somewhere.”

Buveur D’Air all set for Haydock return

Buveur D’Air makes his long-awaited return after 420 days on the sidelines at Haydock – but The New One Unibet Hurdle is unlikely to be a “gimme”, despite only two horses taking on the former champion.

The Nicky Henderson-trained 10-year-old receives weight from both his rivals on Saturday and is proven in testing conditions, although the Grade Two affair may not have been the first race on the Seven Barrows trainer’s agenda for the JP McManus-owned gelding.

However, Henderson has been delighted with how Buveur D’Air has got himself into a position to race again, after he picked up a nasty injury to his hoof at Newcastle in November 2019, with a six-inch splinter from a hurdle becoming stuck in his foot, requiring surgery.

Nicky Henderson with Buveur D'Air at his Seven Barrows yard in Lambourn
Nicky Henderson with Buveur D’Air at his Seven Barrows yard in Lambourn (Steven Paston/PA)

“This wasn’t the original plan, but he was so well and came to himself much quicker than I anticipated so we decided to come here and it will be great to see him back on a racetrack,” Henderson – whose current champion Epatante was beaten at odds-on in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton on Boxing Day – said in his Unibet blog.

“It was very much touch and go as to whether he’d even race again because he had to have his foot literally put back together, but we have changed the way he trains and he never sets foot on anything other than grass and everything has gone well.

“Yes there are only three runners and yes he receives weight, but it’s still a horse race and he has to jump and gallop round safely so it’s certainly no ‘gimme’. But I couldn’t be happier with him.”

Ballyandy was successful at Haydock 12 months ago
Ballyandy was successful at Haydock 12 months ago (Julian Herbert/PA)

Nigel Twiston-Davies feels Ballyandy will be no pushover as he bids to win this race for the second year running.

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“Ballyandy has been a wonderful horse for us and we’re looking forward to seeing him run,” said the Naunton handler.

“He won the race last year on testing ground, so hopefully he can once again go close.

“He is taking on the returning Buveur D’Air but, given the ground and his form this season, we are hopeful of a good run. He came out of the Christmas Hurdle well and this has been the plan since.”

Navajo Pass has a bit to find on ratings, but trainer Donald McCain is happy to take his chance in such a small field.

“Obviously we’re up against it off 149, he’s just turned five,” said the Cheshire handler.

“We’ve nowhere to go unless we want to carry a huge weight in a handicap, which is what we were doing at the start of the season and couldn’t do it.

“I think two miles on this ground will be fine. I’ve got an owner (Tim Leslie) that’s prepared to take a punt, so we’ll see.

“He’s a nice horse, he’s probably next season’s horse in that sense. For last season’s juveniles this can be a tough year. He’s a smashing horse, he can only keep on improving and you can’t turn your back on a three-runner race at Haydock.”

Allart takes the next step in his chasing career
Allart takes the next step in his chasing career (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

Henderson is looking forward to seeing how Allart fares in the Read Nicky Henderson’s Unibet Blog Novices’ Chase after he made a winning fencing debut.

“I thought he put up a good display at Ascot on his chasing debut where he got better as the race went on and it was very good education for him,” he said.

“He’s come out of that in very good form and has worked and schooled well since so this looks a good race for him and he goes there with an obvious favourite’s chance.”

Anthony Honeyball still has high hopes for Acey Milan in the Peter Marsh Handicap Chase, after his better-fancied contender Sam Brown was declared a late non-runner because of stiffness.

Acey Milan (right) is a second Peter Marsh challenger for Anthony Honeyball
Acey Milan (right) is a second Peter Marsh challenger for Anthony Honeyball (Andrew Matthews/PA)

Assessing Acey Milan’s chances, the Dorset trainer said: “He ran well over hurdles there last season and he’s won round Aintree first time out this season. I quite like the look of him on paper.

“The ground was a bit quick for him at Newbury, and I don’t know what happened at Plumpton. Nothing came to light after it.

“I’m hoping a flat track like Haydock with more runners is what he wants. I think he might be dangerous off 10st 4lb if everything is right with him. He could be an interesting contender off that weight.”

McCain is looking forward to stepping Minella Drama up to Grade Two company in the Sky Bet Supreme Trial Rossington Main Novices’ Hurdle.

The six-year-old is still learning his trade, but has won his last two starts after being runner-up to Llandinabo Lad on his hurdling debut.

McCain said: “He’s a grand horse, he’s a little bit raw still and a bit to learn.

“Two miles round there should be fine and this has been the target since Bangor.”

Llandinabo Lad, trained by Tom Symonds, reopposes, while the other three runners – Faivoir, Nada To Prada and Anythinforlove – won on their latest starts.

Doncaster pencilled in as next step for Shishkin

Shishkin is set to continue his education over fences in the Lightning Novices’ Chase at Doncaster next weekend.

Nicky Henderson is favouring the Grade Two contest over an extended two miles as the next race for the exciting seven-year-old ahead of the Cheltenham Festival.

Last season’s Supreme Novices’ Hurdle winner has made a superb start to his chasing career with two facile victories at Kempton, and is already odds-on at around 8-11 for the Sporting Life Arkle Trophy.

Henderson is also thinking of taking Floressa and Marie’s Rock to Town Moor for the Grade Two Yorkshire Rose Mares’ Hurdle, while Santini is likely to be the yard’s main runner at the Cheltenham Festival Trials meeting the same day.

The nine-year-old will bid for back-to-back victories in the Cotswold Chase, which he won in 2020 before finishing second in the Gold Cup.

“We’re unlikely to have too many runners at Cheltenham next week. Santini would be the obvious one and I think I’m swinging towards Doncaster’s Lightning Novices’ Chase for Shishkin, while Floressa and Marie’s Rock could contest the Mares’ Hurdle up there,” the Seven Barrows trainer told Unibet.

Champ is one of Henderson’s leading Gold Cup entries and last year’s RSA Chase winner is on course to make his seasonal debut in the Denman Chase at Newbury on February 13.

“Champ went away in the week for a serious piece of work and jumping session and was very good so the intention remains the Denman Chase at Newbury next month,” Henderson added.

Buveur D’Air declared for Haydock return

Buveur D’Air will face just two rivals when he makes his comeback in The New One Unibet Hurdle at Haydock on Saturday.

The dual Champion Hurdle hero is in line for his eagerly-awaited return after being sidelined since he picked up a nasty injury to his hoof at Newcastle in November 2019.

The Nicky Henderson-trained 10-year-old had a six-inch splinter stuck in his foot when beaten in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle, requiring surgery.

Nicky Henderson has been encouraged by Buveur D'Air in recent weeks
Nicky Henderson has been encouraged by Buveur D’Air in recent weeks (Steven Paston/PA)

It has been a long road, but Buveur D’Air has been pleasing Henderson of late and is now ready to return to the fray.

The Grade Two contest sees him take on last year’s winner Ballyandy, from the Nigel Twiston-Davies stable, and Donald McCain’s Navajo Pass.

Royale Pagaille heads a field of 10 for the Peter Marsh Handicap Chase.

The Venetia Williams-trained seven-year-old relishes testing conditions and has registered convincing victories on this course and at Kempton this season.

Sam’s Adventure, trained by Brian Ellison, demonstrated his liking for a test of stamina when landing the Tommy Whittle Handicap Chase over course and distance last month.

Anthony Honeyball is two-handed with Sam Brown and Acey Milan. The latter is one of five horses running from outside the handicap. The others are Lamanver Pippin, Potters Legend, Just Your Type and Claud And Goldie.

Allart, a highly-promising winner on his fencing debut at Ascot last month, will be a warm order for the race carrying his trainer’s name, the Read Nicky Henderson’s Unibet Blog Novices’ Chase.

The seven-year-old is one of five declared for the Grade Two contest over two and a half miles.

The quartet of Empire Steel, Marown, Silber Hallmark and Galahad Quest should provide decent opposition.

The other Grade Two on the card is the Sky Bet Supreme Trial Rossington Main Novices’ Hurdle, which also has a field of five.

Tom Symonds saddles course and distance scorer Llandinabo Lad, while Michael Scudamore’s Nada To Prada took a Listed contest on this course last month.

Falvoir, Minella Drama and Anythingforlove complete the quintet.

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.”

Gallyhill gets off to winning start for Henderson at Newbury

Expensive point-to-point purchase Gallyhill was made to work extremely hard for a winning debut under rules at Newbury.

Bought for £450,000 by Henrietta Knight for owner Mike Grech and sent to Nicky Henderson, the six-year-old won his point at Kirkistown by two and a half lengths.

Sent off the 30-100 favourite in a field of 15 for the MansionBet Is Proud To Sponsor British Racing Novices’ Hurdle, his task was made easier by the withdrawal of what looked to be chief market rival Hoi Polloi on account of the worsening ground conditions.

The extended two-mile affair was run in heavy rain with visibility poor as big outsider Calgary Tiger opened up a sizeable advantage.

By the third-last Gallyhill had cruised up into the lead, but Robin’s Dream headed him after the last.

Nico de Boinville will have been glad a gap was left on the rail, as Gallyhill rallied to the cause and won going away by a length and a quarter.

Henderson said: “It was quite nasty out there and I couldn’t see very much, but Nico said he took a big blow and did well to get back in front.

“He’s a staying chaser and his next run will be over two and a half miles.”

Henderson appeared to have strong claims of an early double on the card with Birchdale in the following MansionBet-sponsored limited handicap chase.

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Dostal Phil and Richard Johnson clear the last
Dostal Phil and Richard Johnson clear the last (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

However, JP McManus’ runner found disappointingly little in the straight and it was the owner’s apparent second-string, the Phillip Hobbs-trained Dostal Phil, who claimed the spoils.

The 7-1 chance moved ominously into contention under Richard Johnson and fairly sprinted away – as much as the testing conditions would allow – to win by five and a half lengths from Funambule Sivola.

Johnson said: “He travelled well throughout and in the main I was pleased with his jumping.

“He was a little bit big at a couple early on, but he got better as the race progressed.”

Hobbs and Johnson then hit the mark again, in the British EBF Mares’ “National Hunt” Novices’ Hurdle when Little River Bay defied a welter burden.

Conceding 12lb to all of her rivals courtesy of wins at Wincanton and Fontwell, she looked booked for second for much of the straight as Tequila Blaze made a bold bid.

Johnson kept his mount on the far side of the track and the 5-2 favourite stuck on gamely to win by two and a half lengths.

“I thought the ground might be a bit fresher on the far side, which is why I went in that direction, and I thought it was a very pleasing effort under a double penalty as there looked to be some decent types,” said Johnson.

“Hopefully she can go on to better things.”

Little River Bay (far side) still had ground to make up on Tequila Blaze at the last
Little River Bay (far side) still had ground to make up on Tequila Blaze at the last (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

The lightly-raced Fagan (5-1), formerly trained by Gordon Elliott but now with Alex Hales, defied top-weight under Harry Bannister in the MansionBet’s Best Odds Guaranteed Handicap Chase.

Second to Unowhatimeanharry in the 2016 Albert Bartlett at Cheltenham, he joined Hales a year ago but was winning for the first time.

Bannister said: “It’s the first time I’ve ridden him, but I was conscious that as he idles I shouldn’t hit the front too soon.

“It probably suited him that the race was run strongly and I could give him a chance. He has a good set of gears and that little bit of class shone through.”

Fagan jumps into the lead at the last
Fagan jumps into the lead at the last (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

Stuart Edmunds was on the mark with Maskada (12-1) in the mares’ handicap hurdle and is hoping it signals the end of a quiet spell.

“My horses weren’t quite right over Christmas so I gave them jabs and waited and it looks like they’ve come back now,” he said.

“This mare won a juvenile in bad ground at Warwick and after a toss up with Fakenham I’m glad we came here.

“She’ll jump a fence, but I imagine we will carry on in mares’ handicaps.”

Nigel and Sam Twiston-Davies were celebrating when Gowel Road (5-2 favourite) lumped top-weight to victory in the MansionBet’s Faller Insurance Handicap Hurdle.

“He’s a nice horse and when he ran here last time he was a bit green. It wasn’t a very good race and it got him a handicap mark,” said the jockey.

Ben Pauling won the closing bumper for the third successive year, this time with Fine Casting (2-1).

Jerry McGrath recovering following Lingfield pile-up

Jerry McGrath is recovering from hip and shoulder injuries sustained in a three-horse pile-up at Lingfield on Monday.

The jump jockey remains in hospital after being operated on following his crashing fall from the Nicky Henderson-trained Vegas Blue in the concluding ‘jumpers bumper’.

“He had some surgery last night because he dislocated his hip and his shoulder. I haven’t heard much more,” said trainer Nicky Henderson.

“He might have fractures in those areas. He’s having X-rays and further examinations to see what else there is.

“His head and back are good. It’s just his shoulder and hip. He had an operation last night to put them back into place. It is possible he may need another piece of surgery.”

The falls occurred on the home turn less than three furlongs from home, when McGrath was about to make his challenge on Vegas Blue. The six-year-old appeared to be short of room, clipped heels and came down.

Perfect Percy, partnered by Jordan Nailor, and the Alexander Thorne-ridden Lord Howard were brought down. Those two riders rose to their feet, and all three horses got up too.

McGrath was reportedly conscious and speaking while being treated on track before being taken to hospital.

Dame delivers on chasing bow at Ayr

Cheltenham Festival winner Dame De Compagnie made a victorious debut over fences in the Western House Hotel Gift Vouchers Novices’ Chase at Ayr.

Not seen since justifying 5-1 favouritism in the ultra-competitive Coral Cup last March, the eight-year-old mare had to travel a long way from Henderson’s Lambourn base to find a suitable beginning for her new career.

Despite one blunder on the first circuit, she jumped well in the main – and while she faced a fine rival in Cornerstone Lad, a Fighting Fifth winner over hurdles, Dame De Compagnie had far too much pace in the straight and pulled nine lengths clear under Nico de Boinville.

The sponsors cut the winner into 5-1 from 10s for the Mrs Paddy Power Mares’ Chase at the Cheltenham Festival, but Henderson appears lukewarm on that idea.

“She was great, she made just the one mistake, and when she did it I said ‘she won’t do that again’ – and she didn’t,” he said of the 1-2 favourite.

“I’m not sure there’s an awful lot she can go for in March. She’d ideally want two and a half miles, but then you meet Envoi Allen (in the Marsh Novices’ Chase).

“There’s the new mares’ chase, but that’s not really for novices – after just one run, that would be asking quite a lot.

“She beat a Fighting Fifth winner there, but to be fair the other horse hasn’t run to the form he showed when beating Buveur D’Air since – though I’m sure the handicapper might try to tell me he has!

“The trouble was we couldn’t find a two-and-a-half-mile novice chase for her – there was a lack of opportunities, and she was ready to go.

“I didn’t really want to run her over two miles. But with nothing else coming up, we had to get her in the box and head north.

“We’ll have to do some thinking (for her next target).”

Earlier on the card, Olly Murphy’s Champagnesuperover (6-4 favourite) got off the mark over obstacles in the EBF “National Hunt” Maiden Hurdle, and jockey Adrian Heskin went on to double up on Warren Greatrex’s Timeless Beauty (7-2 favourite).

Buzz camp line up Newbury challenge

Nicky Henderson’s Buzz is likely to have his next outing in the Betfair Hurdle.

The grey finished third on his first outing of the season in the Welsh Champion Hurdle behind Sceau Royal, before bolting up at Ascot in November by seven lengths.

Raised 11lb for that success, he went back to Ascot a month later for the Betfair Exchange Trophy and beat all bar a rejuvenated Not So Sleepy, who was receiving 6lb as he won the race for the second year in succession.

At the prospect of heading for Newbury’s big handicap on February 13, James Stafford, racing manager for Buzz’s owners Thurloe Thoroughbreds, said: “We haven’t fully made up our minds, but I think it’s more likely than not.

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“The irony of his last run was that we were beaten by Hughie Morrison – who we bought Buzz off!

“I don’t think Buzz really saw the winner on the other side of the course. If we’d followed him through we might have been even closer, but he ran a blinder off top-weight.

“He’s been put him up another 4lb, and we don’t know the rider yet.

“We could claim off him. That has been mooted, because he’ll probably end up with top-weight.

“We’ll keep an eye on everything. It’s unlikely to dry out too much, but he does like soft ground.

“Top-weights don’t have a great record in the race – which is something else to consider.”

Stafford is mindful of a proliferation of dangerous opponents in what is always a hugely competitive race.

“You usually want to be a novice on the up,” he added.

“I suppose the ones who have stuck out so far have been Cadzand, who was impressive at Kempton, and maybe Llandinabo Lad.

“Of course there’s the Tolworth winner (Metier) too, who could run – so there are plenty to be wary of.

“So, we could use a conditional to take some weight off – but I haven’t discussed that with Nicky yet. I think there’s a fair chance he’ll run, though.”

Buzz is currently a 14-1 chance with the sponsors.

Edwardstone tees up Betfair Hurdle bid

Alan King has his sights set on Newbury with Edwardstone following his winning return to hurdling action at Market Rasen.

The seven-year-old was fifth in the Greatwood Hurdle at Cheltenham in November before switching to fences, where he unseated his rider in a novice event at Doncaster in December.

Back to the smaller obstacles at the Lincolnshire track, Gavin Sheehan’s mount ran out a comfortable five-length winner of the MansionBet Handicap Hurdle.

King was at Warwick, where he outlined plans for his even-money winner.

He said: “He will go to the Betfair (Hurdle) and he was always going to go there. He gets a penalty for that, but I needed to get a run into him as he has had no match practice this season.

“We were going to go chasing with him, but he only got to the fourth fence at Doncaster and I just felt I’d rather have a full season with him over fences so went back to training him for Newbury.

“I wanted to get a run into him and this race fitted in well before the Betfair. I do think he will be a very good chaser, but you would have ended up getting one run into him then going to Cheltenham and you can’t do that.

“I might run him over a fence in May when the freshness is out of him. He has always been potentially very good and he is settling better now.”

On The Blind Side has been a model of consistency
On The Blind Side has been a model of consistency (Tim Goode/PA)

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On The Blind Side’s fine season continued when he justified his position as short-priced favourite with a game victory in the MansionBet’s Bet 10 Get 10 Hurdle.

The Nicky Henderson-trained gelding was last seen finishing second to the highly-regarded McFabulous in the Grade Two Relkeel Hurdle at Kempton, his third run of a campaign that has seen him finish in the first two every time.

Jumping fluently throughout and travelling in the slipstream of the ever-popular Lil Rockerfeller, the nine-year-old was engaged in a shoulder-to-shoulder battle with the chestnut and eventually shook him off after the last to prevail by a neck under Nico de Boinville.

“He dug deep there, he was brilliant,” De Boinville said of the evens scorer.

“Fair play to the owners and the guv’nor for spinning him round so fast after last time.

“It’s great to see him showing a bit of consistency this season, well, a lot of consistency. The ground didn’t bother him at all.”

The race sadly saw the loss of 2018 County Hurdle winner Mohaayed, who had unseated Bridget Andrews at the fifth flight.

Harrison Beswick riding Eclair Mag
Harrison Beswick riding Eclair Mag (Tim Goode/PA)

Eclair Mag struck gold on his first start for trainer Richard Bandey when claiming the MansionBet’s Best Odds Guaranteed Handicap Chase at the massive starting price of 80-1.

The French import had one hurdles win and one chase win to his name for Vaumas-based Emmanuel Clayeux before joining the yard of Bandey earlier this month.

Taking up the lead over the penultimate fence having been towards the rear for much of the race, the seven-year-old was spring-heeled at the final fence to pull away from 5-2 favourite Mac Tottie and prevail by four and three-quarter lengths under 5lb claimer Harrison Beswick.

“Harrison said we should have him, he was at Emmanuel Clayeux’s, who Harrison was working for last summer,” Bandey said.

“We had no expectations coming over, we thought it might be too heavy, but he’s travelled well and he’s jumped like a stag. I can’t believe he’s done it that well, to be honest.

“We have thought we might look at the cross-country race at Cheltenham, but he might be too far up the handicap for that, we’ll see. For now we’ll just enjoy today.”

Connor Brace and Art Approval on their way to victory
Connor Brace and Art Approval on their way to victory (Tim Goode/PA)

Art Approval made light work of the MansionBet Watch and Bet Novices’ Hurdle for Fergal O’Brien and Connor Brace, looking worthy of his 4-11 favourite status when triumphing by seven lengths.

The victory was a first for the five-year-old, who joined O’Brien in July last year and has since been runner-up in two hurdle contests before finishing seventh at Cheltenham in November after making a late mistake.

“He’s done it very well,” Brace said of the performance.

“Once he hit the front he had a bit of a look as he’s never been in front before, but he had a nice trip and he jumped well, too.

“He’s a horse that seems to always run a little behind the bridle and because of the heavy ground he hit a flat spot there, but that aside he went very well.”

Fawsley Spirit (9-4 favourite) shed his 13-race maiden tag when grinding out a hard-fought triumph in the MansionBet Faller Insurance Handicap Hurdle for trainer Ben Pauling and jockey Luca Morgan.

The eight-year-old ran prominently throughout, seeing off a late challenge from Akarita Lights over the penultimate flight to pull away approaching the last and cross the line three and a quarter lengths ahead of his nearest rival.

Buveur D’Air poised for Haydock return

Buveur D’Air is set to make his long-awaited return to action at Haydock on Saturday after thrilling trainer Nicky Henderson in an away-day gallop.

The dual Champion Hurdle winner has not been since since suffering a serious injury when runner-up in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle in November 2019, with a piece of wood from a hurdle becoming lodged in his foot and requiring surgery.

Nico de Boinville rode the JP McManus-owned 10-year-old in the gallop and is set to be in the saddle for both The New One Unibet Champion Hurdle Trial on Merseyside and the Champion Hurdle itself, with Aidan Coleman maintaining his partnership with Epatante.

Henderson said in his Unibet blog: “I’m pleased to report that Buveur D’Air is coming along extremely well and had an ‘away day’ on Wednesday and I have got to say he was absolutely amazing.

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“To start with he jumped five hurdles at home which was the first time he’d left the ground since the Fighting Fifth Hurdle in 2019 and he certainly hasn’t forgotten anything – he was brilliant!

“His recovery has been nothing short of remarkable and great credit should be given to all the team at Martinstown including John O’Brien and Ger Kelly who did such a good job putting his foot back together, literally.

“I’ve always sort of thought we were ahead of schedule so the time came to give him a serious gallop and after schooling over our hurdles at home we went off elsewhere and jumped seven hurdles over a mile with two lead horses.

Nicky Henderson with dual Champion Hurdle hero Buveur D'Air
Nicky Henderson with dual Champion Hurdle hero Buveur D’Air (Steven Paston/PA)

“Then one dropped out and another one joined in and they worked together on the flat for another mile where they quickened and quickened and I have to say it was unreal, he didn’t half quicken up to the end!

“It was wonderful to watch because it’s been some journey to get him back bearing in mind we were even questioning if he’d ever be able to race again, but he has made fantastic progress.

“So much so, that I have decided he’s ready to go and I’m very much thinking about running him in The New One Unibet Hurdle at Haydock next Saturday.”

Of Epatante, who remains on course to head straight to Cheltenham to defend her two-mile crown following a surprise defeat in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton, the Seven Barrows handler said: “We checked her out fully after the Christmas Hurdle and nothing came to light.

Barry Geraghty celebrates victory in last year's Champion Hurdle with Epatante
Barry Geraghty celebrates victory in last year’s Champion Hurdle with Epatante (Tim Gode/PA)

“But there was just something not quite right about her coming out of the paddock and JP said to me straight after the race that he didn’t think she was herself along the walkway going out to the track.

“So I’ve watched the replay and he was quite right – she wasn’t her usual self and was shaking about and throwing her head around doing all sorts of things she doesn’t normally do, so that may explain a few things.

“She is perfectly fine and training well and I’m looking forward to Cheltenham in March.”

Epatante and Buveur D’Air on course for Champion Hurdle

Last year’s heroine Epatante and dual winner Buveur D’Air are among 27 entries for the Unibet Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham.

Buveur D’Air claimed the two-mile hurdling crown in both 2017 and 2018 for trainer Nicky Henderson and owner JP McManus, before falling at the third flight when bidding for the hat-trick two years ago.

He was unable to run in last year’s renewal because injury, but Henderson and McManus found a super-sub in Epatante, who provided the Seven Barrows handler with a record eighth victory in the race and McManus his ninth.

Epatante remains the clear favourite for this year’s Champion Hurdle, despite suffering a shock defeat to admirable grey Silver Streak when defending her crown in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton on Boxing Day.

Nicky Henderson with Buveur D'Air
Nicky Henderson with Buveur D’Air (Steven Paston/PA)

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Buveur D’Air has not been seen in competitive action since suffering a freak hoof injury in the the 2019 Fighting Fifth at Newcastle, but is reported to be closing in on a comeback.

Henderson is responsible for six entries in all – with his team also including Buzz, Call Me Lord, Marie’s Rock and Verdana Blue.

Willie Mullins has five contenders, headed by last year’s runner-up Sharjah, who recently won his third Matheson Hurdle at Leopardstown.

Saint Roi, Saldier, Concertista and new French recruit James Du Berlais complete the Closutton quintet.

Tom Symonds is still undecided as to whether to run his stable star Song For Someone in the Champion Hurdle or wait for the Grand National meeting at Aintree.

The six-year-old has won his last three starts at Grade Two level – completing his hat-trick with a narrow victory over the aforementioned Silver Streak in the International Hurdle at Cheltenham last month.

Symonds said: “Song For Someone is in great form, and the plan would be to either run in the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham or the Aintree Hurdle. We have entered him in the Champion Hurdle and we will make a decision nearer the time.

“I am absolutely thrilled with him at home. He is very well and seems to have come out of the International in great form.

“There are three races we are currently weighing up, with one of them acting as his prep before one of the big spring festivals. He could go to Haydock for The New One Unibet Hurdle a week on Saturday, the Contenders Hurdle at Sandown Park or the Kingwell at Wincanton.

“I think the weather will play a big part as to what race he actually runs in, and I am not really leaning to any of them at the moment. We will enter him in the three races as they come along and then decide where to go.

“The Champion Hurdle is firmly in the picture, and it would be great to have a runner in a championship race like that.”

Henry de Bromhead has entered unbeaten mare Honeysuckle, Aspire Tower and Jason The Militant – while other hopefuls include Gordon Elliott’s Abacadabras and the Gary Moore-trained Goshen.

Monday Musings: Trainer Titles

The frost relented at three of Paul Nicholls’ most productive racecourses on Saturday morning and the 11-times champion National Hunt trainer took heavy toll with a remarkable seven winners, writes Tony Stafford. Kempton, Chepstow and above all Wincanton are the three.

At the same time he was emphatically (albeit inwardly) announcing that his re-building of stable strength back to that of its heyday when Kauto Star and Denman were in their pomp, has been fully achieved.

I was half aware of somebody being quoted on the television last night – definitely not in my favourite French-language and subtitled detective show Spiral on BBC4. It was: “Men can lie, women can lie, but numbers can’t!” The numbers are there for all to see in the 2020-21 jump trainers’ championship.

The Nicholls decline, if you could call it that, was characterised last season by a first failure in 19 to reach 100 wins, when 96 victories from 445 runs brought total UK prizemoney of £2.34million. Nicky Henderson, his sole realistic challenger over the past decade, won his fifth title and third of the last four with 118 winners and £2.54million in prizemoney.

That said, the normal post-Cheltenham section of the campaign with its handsome prizemoney levels especially at Aintree, Sandown’s finals day, and the Ayr Scottish Grand National meeting distorted the figures. Nicholls’ routine century would have been assured and the relatively close money margin for Henderson could easily have been bridged.

Henderson’s first interruption of a near-Martin Pipe-like monopoly for Nicholls since his first title in 2005-6 came in 2012-13, 27 years after his own first Trainers’ Championship in 1985-6. Henderson, now 70, lacks nothing in energy and horse-power but the die is already cast for 2020-21.

While Nicholls has been serenely proceeding towards title number 12 with already 107 victories and £1.46m in money won, Henderson is languishing on less than half the monetary rewards with £673K and just over half the winners, 57 from 268 runs, both well down on his normal schedule.

Considering the jumps season didn’t begin until July 1, Nicholls’s pace has been remarkable but so too has Dan Skelton’s 74 wins and £823k from 408 runs even allowing for the fact that his customary summer starting splurge has been abandoned – for the better – with some potential stars in the pot.

Lower down, some interesting names follow and Evan Williams, after his emotional capturing of the re-scheduled Coral Welsh Grand National with the heavily-backed and well-named in the circumstances favourite, Secret Reprieve, just edged over the half-million mark from only 30 wins.

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Williams was talking up the prospects of Secret Reprieve’s tackling a Grand National at Aintree and he will be hoping on Tuesday morning to see the Ruckers’ seven-year-old getting a few pounds more than his present mark of 142 – he was able to run on Saturday off 8lb lower after his previous win.  Secret Reprieve would probably make it into the top 40 with 142 but 145 makes it a certainty - if Covid doesn’t intervene again.

The next three trainers in the list, all within a winner or two of getting over the half-million are Messrs O’Neill, Fergal O’Brien and Twiston-Davies. Fergal’s consistent form has brought him to 70 compared to a previous best of 63 and with expansion firmly in place, a first century is the aim and seemingly a realistic one with three months to go, subject to acts of God, God forbid!

Nicholls’ Saturday seven-timer was also a contributor to another multi-winning performance on the day. Daryl Jacob must have gone to Wincanton confident of winning the opener on Ben Pauling’s highly-regarded Malinello but found Nicholls’ Flash Collonges, one of two Harry Skelton winners for his former boss, much too good.

I’ve no doubt that when that one lost he didn’t expect to win on five of his remaining six mounts.

The Nicholls winner for Jacob was Capeland, a 6-1 shot in the second most valuable race of the day there, the two-and-a-half-mile handicap chase and the jockey also won races for Robert Walford, Alan King, Pauling and Milton Harris.

Within that quintet, he collected the big race, the re-staged Dipper Novices Chase, just a three-runner affair, on Messire Des Obeaux, where Alan King’s gelding shocked odds-on Protektorat in a rare reverse for the Skeltons in recent times. Both Flash Collonges and Messire Des Obeaux are sons of the late-lamented Saddler Maker.

Jacob’s five-timer worked out at a massive 3275-1. Nicholls’ septet, while not quite his best - he’s had an eight-in-a-day before now – amounts to more than treble that at 10,418-1. Of course to get the latter up, you’d need to navigate the 11 losers that besmirched his record. Jacob has surged onto 39 wins for the season but the title-holder Brian Hughes, with 90, looks to have a strong grip on his trophy, currently having 15 and 19 in hand of the two Harrys, Cobden and Skelton.

It’s very unusual in the depths of winter that Ireland suffers more than the UK, but there has been a flurry of abandonments across the Irish Sea with frost as the principal factor. Whatever happened to the milder west winds picking up moisture as they sweep across the Atlantic?

The perennial struggle at the top of the table there between Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott is as compelling as ever. Usually at this point in the season Elliott has been ahead but this time it’s the other way round.

Mullins has already gone past the century with 104 wins from only 326 runs to earn €2.18m at a spectacular 32% strike rate.  An impressive 76 of the 162 individual horses he’s run since racing resumed have won.

Elliott is only around €70k behind Mullins in winnings but it has taken 125 wins from a bumper exactly 800 runs – almost double both Nicholls’ and Skelton’s number and treble Henderson’s – to get that close. Equally he has needed 292 horses, 90 of which have won, to make it that far.

Mullins is having his normal effect on the jockeys’ title race. Since Ruby Walsh’s retirement Paul Townend has been in pole position, but third-placed Henry de Bromhead’s 69 victories have given a big boost to Rachael Blackmore, his stable jockey.

Townend leads on 69, all but five for the Closutton trainer, but is far from secure for another title as Blackmore’s 46 wins for her boss have been supplemented by another 19 from outside rides making the deficit only four.

Talking of jockeys, the 2021 Flat championship will be very interesting given Oisin Murphy starts the year under a three-month ban imposed by the French authorities. He managed to get it reduced from the original six months on appeal and while it doesn’t interfere with the championship which starts in May, or the first phase of turf racing or indeed anything after March 11, it could still have an effect on his confidence.

No need to go into how he got the trace of drugs in his system. In these perilous times I wonder how many people contracting Covid, like my mate Steve Gilbey who said it was the most frightening experience of his life, know where they caught it. He says maybe it was Christmas shopping in Sainsburys.

Steve, a one-time repo man and night club bouncer before his more acceptable roles as a bodyguard and then Ray Tooth’s much-valued right-hand man, has seen and heard of many friends and some family members who haven’t managed to stave off the effects of the virus. I pray – as does Ray – that he’ll get through, just as I do that my son, his wife and their son, whose symptoms are less severe, will all recover soon.

Back to Flat jockeys, though, and as I said it could be a pivotal year. One Whatsapp I received just the other day made very interesting reading. It claimed that Ben Curtis would be joining Mark Johnston as stable jockey. Now confirmed as true, his odds of 10/1 for the title have plummeted to 3/1.

Mark’s most active jockeys, Joe Fanning and Franny Norton, both celebrated their 50th birthdays last year. Norton is the older by eight weeks, his birthday coming on July 27 to Fanning’s on September 24th (the same as my son incidentally!).

Between them they rode 56% of Johnston’s winners and 55% of the stable’s runners. Fanning was the busier – well, he’s younger, it makes sense! – with 50 wins from exactly 400 rides in 2020. Old-man Franny was only 75% as busy but just as tidy with his 45 from 300 rides. No other jockey achieved more than the 15 wins of P J McDonald. Then came William Buick and Silvestre De Sousa with ten each.  Curtis had six wins from 35 rides for the stable.

Their longevity says much for their iron constitutions but even more for the amazing loyalty of the trainer. Had he not kept them on, riding many of the yard’s best horses as well as the majority of the lesser performers, they would probably have retired a while ago.

A second compelling item on the same Whatsapp message concerned Paul Mulrennan who it seems might be getting closer to a connection with Karl Burke. Interesting? Not many!

Nicky Henderson announces retirement of Might Bite

Nicky Henderson has announced the retirement of 2017 King George VI Chase hero Might Bite.

While that performance at Kempton was no doubt his career highlight, he will also be remembered for the dramatic way in which he won the RSA Chase a season earlier when holding off stablemate Whisper by a nose.

Over 10 lengths clear jumping the last, Might Bite veered badly to his right up the run-in, giving Whisper a chance, only to pick up again in the final strides to cling on for victory.

He went on to be second in the 2018 Gold Cup to Native River, yet despite winning at Aintree that year he failed to reproduce that form in subsequent seasons.

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“It is a sad day at Seven Barrows as we have decided to call time on the career of Might Bite who has been retired after we came to the conclusion that perhaps he wasn’t enjoying his racing quite as much as the good old days,” Henderson told Unibet.

“But it’s great that he ends his life on the track a perfectly sound and happy person and on his own terms, which is the most important thing.

“It was an amazing journey, but not one without a few hiccups along the way and I suppose the most memorable would have been when he tried to visit the Guinness Village at Cheltenham en route to winning the RSA.

“That was a tremendous race, and a fine spectacle for everyone there that day, but what made it even more significant was that we had the second, Whisper, so I would have been happier if the judge had called a dead heat!”

Native River leads Might Bite over the last in the 2018 Gold Cup
Native River leads Might Bite over the last in the 2018 Gold Cup (David Davies/PA)

Reflecting further, Henderson said: “He was one of the most amazing characters you’ll ever come across and was the most gorgeous looking horse you will ever see; he had so much presence about him and stood out more than anything else in the parade ring and was in the Sprinter Sacre sort of mould.

“In fact we pretty much purchased him on looks rather than anything else because at the time his sire, Scorpion, wasn’t as popular as he is now so we took a bit of a shot in the dark, but it was definitely worth it and he ended up winning just shy of £607,000 in prize-money and 10 of his 25 starts which is quite phenomenal.

“The highlight would have to be the King George in 2017 when he was simply marvellous and was never really going to get beaten that day because his confidence was so high and he was very much at the top of his game.”

Imperial Aura headlines Kempton card

Cheltenham Festival hero Imperial Aura is the star name among 11 entries for the Unibet Silviniaco Conti Chase at Kempton on Saturday.

Kim Bailey’s charge won the now defunct novices’ handicap chase at Prestbury Park in March and has continued in the same vein this term – winning the Colin Parker Memorial Chase at Carlisle before impressing in the Grade Two 1965 Chase at Ascot.

The eight-year-old disputes ante-post favouritism with last year’s winner Min for the Ryanair Chase at Cheltenham, and will be well fancied to enhance his claims in this weekend’s two-and-a-half-mile Grade Two contest.

Nicky Henderson has entered 2019 winner Top Notch, as well as Mengli Khan and Mister Fisher, who won the rescheduled Peterborough Chase at Cheltenham on his latest appearance.

Paul Nicholls saddled Frodon to win 12 months ago and could this year be represented by Master Tommytucker.

Other hopefuls include the Nigel Twiston-Davies-trained Riders Onthe Storm, Ann Hamilton’s stable star Nuts Well and Tom George’s Peterborough Chase third Clondaw Castle.

Nine horses are in contention for the Dornan Engineering Relkeel Hurdle, which was saved and switched from the abandoned New Year’s Day fixture at Cheltenham.

George’s Summerville Boy could bid for back-to-back victories in the race, Bailey has entered Long Walk Hurdle fourth Younevercall, Nicholls could run McFabulous and Thomas Darby may represent Olly Murphy.

Paul Webber’s Cheltenham Festival winner Indefatigable also features.

The Unibet Lanzarote Hurdle is a race with plenty of history. An entry of 31 includes four Henderson inmates in Call Me Lord, Champagne Platinum, Glynn and The Cashel Man, while Nicholls has an interesting pair in Solo and Amour De Nuit.