Tough Times for Henderson at Cheltenham

Cheltenham has a knack of producing drama aplenty, and this weekend proved no exception.

The three day ‘Open Meeting’ has a habit of showcasing the talent of champions; past, present and future. This proved the case once again, yet it was a shock announcement off the track, coupled with a tragedy on it, that will undoubtedly have grabbed the headlines.

On the opening day, the Nicky Henderson trained O O Seven brushed aside a talented field, to win the Steel Plate And Sections Novices’ Chase in the fashion of a potentially top-class chaser. A natural over the fences, he finished 10 lengths clear, despite taking the scenic route from the last. His victory was made somewhat easier when favourite Barters Hill pulled-up injured after the seventh.

Thankfully Ben Pauling’s stable star lives to fight another day. As for the winner, Henderson said: “He's a gorgeous-looking horse and this is what we've been waiting for. This is where his life really begins. It's a long wait but you have to be patient. He's always been very good since we started schooling him over fences earlier in the year. His technique was always very special and he had to be good to come here first time.”

Day two opened with a facile victory for the talented juvenile hurdler Defi Du Seuil. Owned by JP McManus and trained by Philip Hobbs, this classy French import was adding to his hurdling debut success at Ffos Las. He travelled powerfully throughout, and quickened to put the race to bed with the minimum of fuss. As short as 8s with one firm for the Triumph Hurdle in March, he looks an exciting prospect.

Next up, was for many the most eagerly anticipated event of the weekend; ‘Thistlecrack’s Road To Gold Cup Glory – Take Two’. His chasing debut at Chepstow had been widely acknowledged as a triumph, and many expected much of the same at Cheltenham. Clearly many were getting a little ahead of themselves. Though still winning impressively, Tizzard’s latest star remains a novice, and should be judged as such. His jumping was patchy, with one or two ‘hairy’ moments leading to loud gasps from the packed grandstands.

Thistlecrack is incredibly brave, and clearly has a huge engine. Mistakes are nevertheless inevitable, and I seem to remember Kauto Star regularly making a hash of a final fence on his way to glory. Some experts pronounced that he would need a clear, error-free round if he was to have any chance in the Gold Cup. Yet once again, I seem to remember Synchronised hitting any number of fences on his way to victory in 2012. Of course, errors at fences can prove crucial, especially in the latter stages of a race, when any loss of momentum can be extremely costly.

After Thistlecrack’s thought provoking performance we were treated to a resurgent Taquin Du Seuil taking the BetVictor Gold Cup. Jonjo O’Neill had the favourite for the valuable race, in the form of 2014 World Hurdle hero, More Of That. But it was his stablemate that performed best in testing conditions, getting the better of Village Vic in a thrilling finish.

Of the winner, O’Neill said: “The rain suited him last night. He was flat to the floor but he just stays, he loves this place and Aidan gave him a great ride. It's nice to win a nice race.”

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Of the disappointing race favourite, O’Neill added: “I was more worried before the race about More Of That because I believe he is a very good horse and it's unfortunate the way he's ran. He's obviously got his problems. I haven't spoken to Barry (Geraghty) yet, but it's disappointing.”

Sunday proved to be the most dramatic of the three days, with Nicky Henderson having to endure an emotional roller-coaster.

On the track, Moon Racer for the Pipe team and Le Prezien for Paul Nicholls, were impressive winners of the Supreme and Arkle trials. The former looks a realistic contender for the main event back at Prestbury Park in March. Three times now Moon Racer has visited Cheltenham, and he is yet to taste defeat. Nicholls’ young chaser is a gutsy performer, and has a bright future over fences.

The Shloer Chase is always a highlight of the meeting, and proved to be the most dramatic, before, during and after the race.

The first bombshell came with the announcement that we would never again see the glorious Sprinter Sacre in a competitive race. A tearful Nicky Henderson clearly struggled, as his ‘horse of a lifetime’ paraded before his adoring public. Injury had once again struck, and the decision was made to finish at the top.

In a press conference prior to the parade, an emotional Henderson spoke of the great champion: “He’s been a great part of our lives. What happened last year was something that will never be repeated in my lifetime. In terms of emotion it took us all to the brink. He will be here today and he looks as well as he's ever done. He's in staggeringly good form. The sad thing is that he is doing everything right.

“If you saw him now, you wouldn't know which leg it was, but there's a little bit of heat in his near-fore that has shown up on the scan. If he was seven, you'd say give him a year off and he'd be back. I'm sad for him because he's come here today thinking he's going to have a race and he's all excited and ready to show his public what he can do, but at least people will have the opportunity to see him again today.”

See him they did, as he strutted around the parade ring with an air of invincibility, befitting of a great champion. Sprinter Sacre is undoubtedly the best racehorse of the modern era. A phenomenon on the racetrack during his astounding campaign of 2013, when he was victorious at all three major spring festivals. His success at Aintree in the Melling Chase, was for me the outstanding performance of our time. The way he breezed past Cue Card took your breath away.

His return to the top last year was one of the great stories of National Hunt racing. His victory at last season’s Shloer raised hopes of a renaissance, and we were not to be disappointed. ‘The swagger is back’ became a common phrase throughout the winter, culminating in his astounding victory in the Champion Chase. Anyone who loves Jump racing will struggle to hold back the tears when taking a look at ‘Sprinter Sacre – The Season A Champion Resurrected’ on YouTube.

For Henderson, the retirement of such a champion would inevitably pull at the heart strings, but the Shloer itself was to see the return of another stable star in Simonsig. The classy grey had endured injury upon injury since his Arkle Chase success of 2013. Yet the team at Seven Barrows had finally had a smooth preparation with the 10-year-old, and must have been hopeful of a more favourable campaign. Yet tragedy was to strike just three fences into his comeback, and another huge equine talent was lost.

Simonsig had to be ‘put-down’ after breaking a leg. It’s hard to imagine the emotional state of Nicky Henderson and his team, after such an afternoon. Simonsig had been victorious at two Cheltenham Festivals, and at one time was thought by many to be heir-apparent to the mighty Sprinter himself.

A mention for Fox Norton who took the Shloer in impressive fashion. Now with the Tizzard’s, he is fast improving, and himself undoubtedly now a live contender for the Champion Chase in March. For Colin Tizzard, dreams of Festival glories remain intact, and one of his most exciting winter campaigns remains a realistic possibility.

For Nicky Henderson, he’ll likely take a moment to reflect over several wonderful seasons for two of his outstanding stable stars. He knows more than most how tragedy and glory are inextricably part of the wonderful sport.

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