What to do with a ‘high-class problem’ like Champ?

JP McManus has put so much into National Hunt racing that one can be forgiven that most races and most horses mean as much as any other to him. Nothing could be further from the truth.

He rarely gives much away. Yet the softly-spoken Irishman still gets an almighty craic from the big days and there is no question he is one of the most compassionate when it comes to any of his horses.

But at Ascot on Saturday he admitted that there is one horse who holds a special place in his heart, one that he insists now gives him “a high-class problem”.

Champ has undoubtedly had his problems. A Grade One winner over hurdles (Sefton Novices’ Hurdle) and over fences (RSA Novices’ Chase, beating Minella Indo), he was pulled up in the Cheltenham Gold Cup in March and had a subsequent back operation.

His reappearance at Ascot after nine months off in the Howden Long Walk Hurdle was supposed to be something of a fact-finding mission for Nicky Henderson’s charge, a prep run for bigger things to come.

Yet he showed real determination, finding a second wind and coming back on the bridle to win with ease. The official verdict was a length and three-quarters, but in truth he simply broke runner-up Thyme Hill’s heart.

In this calendar year, Champ has had three runs – the Game Spirit Chase, Cheltenham Gold Cup and Long Walk Hurdle. An unlikely trio if ever there was one.

So now connections have a problem. The nine-year-old – named after 20-time champion Sir Anthony McCoy – is such a talent that he has McManus and Henderson in a quandary.

“Which race to go for – the Gold Cup or Stayers’ Hurdle? We’ll leave it to Nicky,” said McManus.

“I’ve no problem staying over hurdles and equally, if he goes over fences, I have no problem with that.”

Unusually, he candidly added: “There are few horses in training that give me as much pleasure as this horse.

“He is named after the man he’s named after (McCoy) and he is a slow or late-maturing horse who has had niggly problems all his life, but Nicky has shown tremendous patience in dealing with them and giving him the time.

“No horse gives me as much pleasure. We deliberated a long time before we put it (McCoy’s nickname) on a horse, so we thought a lot of him from the start.”

Champ in full flight
Champ in full flight (Nigel French/PA)

Champ has won six of his eight races over hurdles now and the Stayers’ Hurdle is certainly on the radar, especially since Henderson has lost – for the time being at least – his top hope Buzz. The ante-post favourite was ruled out with a pelvic injury on the eve of the Long Walk.

Though immediately cut to 4-1 favourite for the Stayers’ by Coral afterwards, another crack at the Gold Cup remains a possibility, should his jumping not hold him back.

For Henderson, it was merely a relief to get him back on course after his back operation and McManus was keen to pay tribute to the veteran trainer.

“It was a great training performance by Nicky,” said McManus.

“After Cheltenham last year, it was challenging. I wouldn’t know much about the injury, but he had a back injury and Nicky did a tremendous job to get him back and I have to give him full marks.

“Champ summered well and he came back in good form, and we hoped that this is what he would do, but you never know, especially after that run in the Gold Cup, which was a disappointing run for everybody.

“It is back to the drawing board, but he looked to enjoy himself.”

Champ sees off Thyme Hill
Champ sees off Thyme Hill (Nigel French/PA)

While Henderson felt his class may be an asset ahead of the Long Walk, he insisted he would need the run.

McManus added: “Nicky had him fairly ready in fairness. He doesn’t leave too much to chance.

“I would say he will be better for the run and it was exciting when he ran a little bit free about 10 furlongs out – I said, ‘God, not so early – there is plenty of time for that’.

“But he did well to see it out and get his second wind and see off Thyme Hill.”

Of course, the billion dollar question remains.

“I would like to do the right thing, whatever that is,” said McManus.

“I’d like to do the right thing for the horse, whether it is the Gold Cup or the Stayers’.

“Let’s see how he comes out of this. It is a high-class problem!”

And in Henderson, McManus and McCoy, there is no better team to solve it.

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