Nicky Henderson, the winning-most trainer in the history of The Festival, hosted a well-attended media visit organised by Cheltenham Racecourse today at his Seven Barrows Stables just to the north of Lambourn, Berkshire.
He paraded his leading hopes for The Festival, Buveur D’Air and My Tent Or Yours, first and second in last year’s Unibet Champion Hurdle which is their target again, Might Bite, the 2017 RSA Novices’ Chase victor, who is going for the feature Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup, Altior, successful last year in the Racing Post Arkle Novices’ Chase and now targeting the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase, and unbeaten juvenile hurdler Apple’s Shikara who tackles the JCB Triumph Hurdle.
Henderson is looking forward to Altior running again after the star chaser’s successful comeback at Newbury earlier this month.
He said: “Altior is very, very good after Newbury. He hasn’t done anything serious yet – he had two good strong canters today. He will work at the weekend at home – he has three bits of work to do between now and The Festival. I will school him a couple of times too – he likes his jumping and it will keep his eye in. Newbury was as a good as one could have possibly hoped for. The timing of the race was fantastic.
“He dropped his bridle and, while the ground was plenty soft enough for him, he was just very sensible the whole way. He raced sweetly and jumped beautifully – you just couldn’t have written the script. From a weight point of view going into Newbury, he wasn’t far off his usual weight so to his credit, he held onto his condition very well after his wind operation. If you take a fit horse and go from training to zero in one move, you are stopping on one date and that was it for a month and very often they will fall to pieces on you.
“When he is cantering, he finds everything so easy. He is just actually different class. I think that is what it was at Newbury and that gets you a long way. He looked great and we could crack straight on. Nico (de Boinville) gave him a great ride at Newbury and Sam (Twiston-Davies) gave us a great lead.”
8/11 favourite with Betway for the G1 Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase.
Buveur D’Air (FR)
Henderson, going after his seventh Unibet Champion Hurdle, said: “Buveur D’Air takes an awful lot of work. He hasn’t really had a race yet – he didn’t at Sandown the other day, but he worked this morning and I would like to go to Kempton Park to work him on Saturday during racing if possible to get him pysched up. Another whole lot of horses will go to Kempton on Monday or Tuesday to work on the All-Weather – last year we took 14.
“I would not mind taking Might Bite to Kempton on Saturday too – they won’t work together though. As far as the Unibet Champion Hurdle is concerned, if all goes well, Buveur D’Air will run along with My Tent Or Yours, maybe Charlie Parcs, while the owners are very keen to run Verdana Blue if it is good ground, which she needs. Call Me Lord won’t join them.
“Buveur D’Air is better than some of my Champion Hurdlers. Binocular was a very good horse, while Punjabi was probably not the greatest Champion Hurdler. See You Then won the Champion Hurdle three times.
“Buveur D’Air’s greatest asset is his jumping – he is so quick it is frightening. He measures them so precisely – it is like hurdlers in athletics – absolute precision.
“He is just very good at jumping. I think he is improving – he is getting stronger. When he was third in the Supreme Hurdle to Altior at The Festival two years ago, we knew he was a good horse on the way-up.
“My Tent Or Yours was runner-up in the Unibet Champion Hurdle for a third time 12 months ago and earned another tilt by winning the International Hurdle at Cheltenham in December. Tent is on old legs, bless him. He is spectacular. He worked this morning and he will probably go to Kempton next Tuesday, I would suggest.
“He has been second in three Champion Hurdles and had his day in the sunshine in the International. He is not going without reward and we have literally kept him for this. Charli Parcs ran a very good race in the Gerry Feilden. I genuinely think he just wants good ground and, as you know, I think he’s a talented horse. Poor old Charli might have to lead Buveur on Saturday as you have got to find a pacemaker for him.
“These races at The Festival are going to be very competitive and our job is to concentrate on what we are doing. There is no point worrying about what Willie (Mullins) or Gordon (Elliott) is doing – we have got to keep our heads down for three more weeks and try and make sure we don’t make any mistakes. Cross our fingers, we don’t get any hiccups.
“If every single one of the 40-odd horses we are aiming at The Festival get there, it will be a miracle. Anything can happen.”
4/9 favourite with Unibet for the defence of his G1 Unibet Champion Hurdle crown.
Might Bite (IRE)
The trainer reported: “Might Bite has two more bits of work to do. He worked this morning, he’s in good form and his work has been excellent. His work is vastly superior to anything he did at home last year – he’s a better horse this year at home anyway.
“I’m not going to tell you he’s a better horse on the racecourse, but he is definitely a better workhorse at home. He’s been round Cheltenham in the RSA Chase last year and the fact that he was able to essentially come to a complete standstill in the RSA and then get going again, means he must stay pretty well as that is an extraordinary thing to do. He idled in the King George, but he definitely stayed and he did go very quick that day. He took Bristol De Mai on early on and he then galloped away from them – his pace is phenomenal.
“The big question in the King George was that we knew Bristol De Mai was going to make the running, it was just a question of when we went and asked Bristol De Mai a question. It was a little bit earlier than I expected Nico (de Boinville) to do it, but it didn’t take long for Might Bite to say ‘goodbye’ to poor old Bristol De Mai. He is a more mature horse and he possibly looks more professional, but his work is certainly better. It is just of a higher standard.
“He has been three miles round Cheltenham and he has got up the hill. I see no reason why he won’t get it (the distance of the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup). It’s not much further (two extra furlongs) and he is another year stronger. The better the ground, the better he will be. The New Course is the stiffer track. It is further to come to the paddock, I know that. I shall be further away than I was last year, so it is not me that he is after or the Guinness tent either!”
General 3/1 favourite for the highlight of The Festival, the G1 Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Apple’s Shakira (FR)
Henderson commented: “I’m pretty sure that Apple’s Shikira will run in the Triumph Hurdle, I can’t promise that, but talking to Frank [Berry, owner J P McManus’ racing manager], that looks likely. We Have A Dream will run in the race as well.
“Apple’s Shikira won one race in France which was hardly a Triumph Hurdle trial or anything and she is very lazy at home. I did however enquire into Apple’s Jade (Apple’s Shakira sister) and what she was like, and they told me that she doesn’t do a tap at home so that’s all I wanted to hear.
“She has learnt to race and Barry (Geraghty, jockey) has been at pains to ensure that she has learned how to race. He has held her up in behind horses and last time, he jumped the second last and didn’t necessarily take a pull, but left her with some work to do and she came right away up the hill – the further she went, the better she was.
“I’d love to see her and We Have A Dream on good ground. With regards to We Have A Dream, we made a very late decision to go up to Musselburgh to run there last time out (won the Listed bet365 Scottish Triumph Hurdle Trial Juvenile Hurdle on February 4) as we were initially going to target the Victor Ludorum at Haydock, but I thought the ground could be bottomless and it was too close to Cheltenham so we went to Musselburgh to try and get good ground but of course we didn’t get it in the end. I hadn’t prepared him for a race on very soft ground and he blew up so that’s why he looked a bit messy at three and two out, before he then picked up again and he won impressively in the end.”
Clear favourite for the G1 JCB Triumph Hurdle. No filly has won the race since French raider Snowdrop in 2000.
Henderson added: “I’m very pleased with Brain Power. He’s had a wind op and is in good form. What he had done and what Altior had done are two completely different things and that’s something that people don’t realise. They are not remotely the same operations, Brain Power had five days box rest, while Altior had a month – that’s a big difference.
“Brain Power has been forgotten for the Arkle. Nothing went right for him at Sandown in the G1 Henry VIII Novices’ Chase as we didn’t want to make the running with him so that was a bit of a disaster (unseated rider). We then went to Ascot for the G1 Clarence House Chase and I wasn’t saying we were going to beat Un De Sceaux, but what I wanted was a really good gallop. He was going great until he came out of Swinley Bottom and up the hill and he just choked. That was his palate and he’s been cauterised and he’s galloped well since. He’s a very talented horse – seriously talented.”