Cheltenham 2021 Nicky Henderson's star-studded stable hoping to repel the Irish invasion at Prestbury Park
Hendersonâ€™s a big hurdle to Irish hopes in big races
It falls mainly on the broad shoulders of Old Etonian Nicky Henderson to repel the Irish invasion at Cheltenham this week.
Yes, other British trainers - such as Paul Nicholls, Philip Hobbs, Dan Skelton and Colin Tizzard - will have good chances over the 28 races, and they will have a few winners too. But it is Henderson who will fire off Britain's best hopes in the most important races.
Shiskin, Epatante, Altior, Mister Fisher, Champ and Santini are a super six of Britain's best and they are all in the skilled care of the 70-year-old Henderson at his Seven Barrows stable at Lambourn near Newbury.
Young Nicky was supposed to be good with money, not horses, as he went to learn to be a stockbroker after school.
But spreadsheets did not excite him. The Sporting Life and the Sporting Chronicle were the Racing Post of their times - and they were what interested Henderson, not finding someone who wanted to buy or sell a share in a company he had never heard of.
No, horse racing, and jump racing in particular, stirred his blood - and he has turned out to be seriously good at training thoroughbreds.
Six times British Champion trainer, Henderson's 68 winners at the Cheltenham Festival place him second only to his great rival Willie Mullins in that list. And "none of my children are showing an interest in being a trainer, so it may be that I go on for a while yet," he said last year.
He is sometimes criticised for being blinded by Cheltenham, by the four days of action beneath Cleeve Hill that dominate the British, and Irish, jumps calendar.
Henderson copped a fair bit of grief for pulling out of Sandown's Tingle Creek chase last December at the last minute, claiming that running in the heavy ground that prevailed that day might hurt his chance of winning this week's Champion Chase.
Fourteen-and-a-half weeks is the gap between the two races.
Maybe Henderson regrets that now a little, as a harsh winter of 2020/21 meant he could not do all the training and racing he wanted with the huge number of horses available to him.
"We had rain, rain and more rain, even more water than the famous floods of a few years ago here, when Lambourn was cut off," he remembers grimly. "Then we had a frozen week of frost and snow, with temperatures well below freezing.
"Finally, about three weeks before Cheltenham, it all dried up in a matter of days, with a bit of sunshine, a drying wind and the longer days.
"Suddenly we were worried about galloping horses on too firm ground just before the festival. You couldn't make it up."
What wasn't made up either was the Dublin Racing Festival last month at Leopardstown where Irish trainers, and Mullins in particular, unleashed many of their best horses.
"I watched it on TV, and I'm glad I didn't show it to the horses," Nicky laughed as he remembered it. "It was one great performance after another.
"And then someone told me that Gordon Elliott hadn't run three ante-post Cheltenham favourites at the DRF. Dear God, that didn't make me feel any better."
It was true. For a variety of reasons Elliott kept back Envoi Allen (Marsh Chase), Sir Gerhard (Champion Bumper) and Zanahiyr (Triumph Hurdle). They all now go to Cheltenham as fresh horses this week, albeit with different trainers.
Shishkin, in the Arkle Novice Chase over two miles on the first day, was for most of this season the Henderson banker for Cheltenham.
Then along came Willie Mullins's Energumene, now sadly missing out, and Allmankind emerged from the Skelton yard. What once seemed a penalty kick for Shishkin is going to be one of the most-anticipated races of the whole meeting.
"Our lad has looked very good in what he has done this season so far. You may say he hasn't beaten a lot in the campaign, but he has the Championship form in the bag from last term (when Shishkin won the Supreme Novices Hurdle). It's going to be a great race."
Henderson gives a good mention to Mister Fisher in Thursday's Ryanair Chase, as long as the ground is veering towards the good side. "With a bit of goodish ground, he is going to run a big race. We've always liked him here in the stables and I think the Ryanair is the right race for him - but not in a bog."
Santini ought to be rated right up there with the best of the Henderson steeds for the week. He was a fast-finishing, half-length second in last year's Gold Cup and yet is 14/1 for this year's renewal, with even his jockey of 12 months ago, Nico de Boinville, deserting Santini for the yard's other hope for the big one - Champ.
"Well Santini's form this season reads 'third, nowhere, second' so maybe you can understand the 14/1," admitted his handler.
"Look, Nico had a hard call to make between the pair of them and we tried to cover all the bases by getting Aidan Coleman to ride Santini last time out at Sandown.
"At least now Aidan knows the horse when he will be on board on Friday.
"And, anyway, all of Santini's best runs have come in the springtime," added Henderson. "Maybe he just needs to feel that little bit of sun on his back at this time of year."
We all feel that way about 2021. We need to feel the bit of goodness in us that the Festival might bring out as Henderson mans the British barricades against what appears to be a stronger than ever Irish challenge at Cheltenham.
One to win in the name of his father
Nicky Henderson wants to win the Championship races at Cheltenham above all, but if there is a handicap he wants to win - it is most certainly the Johnny Henderson Grand Annual two-mile chase, named in honour of his father.
Johnny Henderson was aide-de-camp to Field Marshal Montgomery in his early years and is the man credited with saving Cheltenham's sacred acres from property developers in the mid-1960s, putting together a group of friends to buy the course and then founding Racecourse Holdings Trust to keep Cheltenham racecourse safe for horses and those who love horses forever.
"Obviously, I'd love to win it again," he says. "It's great to be on the podium giving the Cup to winning connections, but I'd like to be back there as winning trainer, too. Bellvano in 2012 was the last time we won it and that's a while ago now."
The Grand Annual used to be a helter-skelter last race of the festival on the Friday. The horses flew around and the punters were almost as fast, with racegoers primed to rush for the car parks, the buses and taxis to make a quick getaway the moment the winner crossed the finish line. This year it will be the second last race on the Wednesday, with the Cheltenham authorities rejigging their schedule.
"Unfortunately for us, no matter when they run it, the race is a two-mile handicap chase, and you can't just pluck good two-mile handicap chasers from the sky,
"We'll have dear old Thienval running in it for us, I think it will be his sixth time running in the Grand Annual, and he's finished third, fourth and fifth on previous attempts, and we'll have a couple of others if they get into the race.
"Yet I'm afraid we will travel more in hope than confidence to Dad's race."
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