Nicky Henderson tells us about Sprinter Sacre's 'super form'

Henderson with Sprinter Sacre
Henderson with Sprinter Sacre

He’s won more races than anyone at the Cheltenham Festival, but Nicky Henderson is like a hen on a griddle this morning.

For the three-time Champion Trainer in Britain, these are the worst days of all – the days when all the buying, plotting, planning, scheming and dreaming can come to naught.

It’s when something goes wrong with a horse and there’s no time to get the nag right for the greatest four days of the National Hunt Season: the Cheltenham Festival.

It’s simply the worst thing that Henderson faces up to all year. 

“It’s worse than having one chinned on the line at the Festival. At least then you’ve run your race and had a go. But having to ring an owner and tell them the horse has met with a setback and won’t be running at all...” he says.

Henderson knows all about such dark days. He had to pull the brilliant Binocular out of the Champion Hurdle in 2009 just days before the race. A year later the horse came back and won the feature event of the first day. Surely JP McManus’s great horse would have been a two-time winner had he not been so unlucky.

But there is another side to Henderson’s woes.

“At least in that instance, with a great owner like JP, he had other horses to turn to and he could still have a successful four days.

“What about the owner who has one horse? And when that horse is gone, that’s Cheltenham blown for the year,” he says ruefully.

“When it happens there are curses all around the stables. I have to get on to the owner and I swear I am almost in tears. It’s awful – it’s the part of Cheltenham I hate.”

He loves these days too, of course, at least when the action starts and he unleashes his firepower – even if almost every one of Henderson’s remarks about his good horses this year is followed by “but in that one we’ve got one of Willie’s (Mullins) to beat”.

His tale starts on the very first race of the meeting when Altior and Buveur D’Air take on the Mullins hot-pot Min.

“They are two very good horses who I am finding hard to split. But two years ago Willie said he’d win the Supreme Novices Hurdle with Vautour, and he did, and then he said he’d win it last year with Douvan, and he did. So he’s hardly going to say Min is going to be beaten this year? But we’re going to have a go against him.

“It’s about time I won that race anyway. We’ve been second and third so often of late and with good horses like Binocular and Sprinter Sacre, horses that went on to do great things.

“However, we just can’t crack that first race. You don’t want to be heading to Cheltenham on the Thursday morning still without a winner on the board, but that’s the way it might be – it is so competitive and so hard to get a winner at this meeting.”

Mention of Sprinter Sacre brings us sweetly to Wednesday’s big race, the Champion Chase, where the horse is bidding to recover the glories of 2012/13. Back then, the ‘Big Black Aeroplane’ was quite simply the highest rated steeplechaser since the days of Arkle and Flyingbolt, almost half a century before him

“He’s not back there, he won’t get back to that level; if he was he would be an odds-on shot for the Champion Chase no matter what was running against him,” Henderson admits.

“But Sprinter is in super form and we’re ready for the challenge.”

Sprinter Sacre was brilliant over the course and distance of the Champion Chase last November in winning the Shloer Chase. He jumped brilliantly and showed his old, trademark power in putting the race to bed in 10 majestic strides that took him away from the field.

It’s something that hadn’t been seen since the mighty horse succumbed to a heart problem during a race at Kempton almost two years previously.

“That was him back to his best, or his best now. Will that be good enough to beat, yes, one of Willie’s in Un de Sceaux, we’ll see on Wednesday.

“But the horse is fine and I’ve told his jockey (Nico de Boinville) to make use of him. If the horse wants to go on, let him go on.

“With Un de Sceaux and Special Tiara in the field, he may not get the chance to go on. They’ll be making the pace and maybe Sprinter Sacre can come from behind and take them.”

Henderson would love for that to happen. From a situation of knocking out what was then a record seven winners at the Festival in 2012, Henderson hasn’t got a single favourite for any of the 28 races this year with just two days to go before the tapes go up and the famed Cheltenham roar marks the start of heaven for any jumps racing fan.

If all those Willie Mullins hot-pots go in, Henderson will have to turn to the handicaps for a success or two and he is set up nicely there.

“We’ve so many for the Coral Cup on Wednesday we might have about 18 of the field,” he chuckles heartily. 

“Theinval might be our best chance of that lot and we’ve two or three decent ones for the Fred Winter on the same day.”

You might take a hint, mind you, from the fact that he has only one horse, Lough Kent, entered in the very last race of the Festival, the two-mile handicap chase that is named in honour of his father, the late Johnny Henderson.

He was the man who saved the sacred acres of Prestbury Park for horse racing in the 1960s when it seemed that the racecourse might be sold for a housing development.

“Usually I throw a battalion at it every year and we’ve only ever won it twice. This time I’ve only got the one horse. Maybe the change of tactic will work.”