Racing: Henderson makes it a Saturday special

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The Independent Online

Nicky Henderson's remarkable run of Saturday success continued unabated here yesterday as Isio brought the seven up for valuable races in the inaugural running of the Vodafone Gold Cup. Prize money earned courtesy of the eight-year-old, who also took the Victor Chandler Chase, plus Fondmort (Paddy Power Gold Cup), Iris Royal (First National Bank Gold Cup and Tripleprint Gold Cup), Geos (Tote Gold Trophy) and Marlborough (Racing Post Trophy) has contributed £420,300 to his seasonal total of just short of a million, and yesterday's £61,000 leapfrogged him past Philip Hobbs into third place on the trainers' championship table.

Henderson feels that a first title is probably beyond his reach - Paul Nicholls and Martin Pipe are both more than £500,000 clear - but there are purses worth some £2.3m up for grabs at the Cheltenham Festival next week, and Henderson has an outstanding record there. Before that, though, another weekend intervenes, and it would now be a brave punter who would oppose Saintsaire, the Seven Barrows representative in Saturday's Imperial Cup at Sandown. "These funny old Saturdays do give you a bit of confidence about what's to come," said Henderson.

All week, though, Isio's chances in yesterday's contest, introduced to the programme as another opportunity for good-class two-and-a-half-mile specialists, had been viewed by his trainer with hope rather than confidence. Peter and Louise Gibbings' French-bred, exposed as not good enough to beat the very best two-milers, was stepping up to the inter-mediate distance for the first time. "We always felt he could stay," said Henderson, "and we had to try sometime. He's not good enough to beat Moscow Flyer and Azertyuiop, but now we've opened the two-and-a-half mile door it gives us an awful lot more options."

Isio, fitted with a ring bit to curb his headstrong tendencies, was well suited by the decent gallop set up front by See You Sometime, and cruised into contention three fences from home under Barry Geraghty. He made the northern raider Turgeonev and the best of the Martin Pipe trio, Seebald, look rather one-paced as he sprinted clear to score by four lengths. Hand Inn Hand made late progress to take fourth place, but the horse who supplanted him as favourite, Exit Swinger, was never going well and trailed in with the ruck. "He takes a bit of a tug," said Geraghty, "but he was always travelling and it's a great feeling to have that much horse under you. He's as tough as nails and a bit classy. I should think he'll get three miles in time."

In contrast to his public persona, Isio is, apparently, a pussycat at home in the hands of his lass, Vicky Pearce; it is only the heat of battle that makes him forget his manners. "Vicky could ride him out on a piece of thread," said Henderson, "but he's pissed off twice with Mick [Fitzgerald] in races." Fitzgerald, Henderson's stable jockey, expects to be ready for Cheltenham with time to spare after breaking an arm last month. "He'll be riding out this week and he should be back in races at the weekend," said Henderson. "He feels absolutely fine."

Isio is likely to miss the Festival in favour of a crack at the Grade One two-and-a-half miler at the Grand National meeting, the Melling Chase. "He could go to Cheltenham and he might finish third or fourth in the Champion Chase," said Henderson. "But this race today is a perfect stepping stone to Aintree."

The well-backed pair Fundamental, in the two-mile handicap hurdle, and Spirit Of New York, in the closing bumper, gave Jonjo O'Neill four winners in as many days, an encouraging pre-Cheltenham omen after a rather in-and-out season. "I'm happy with them at the moment," said the Irishman, adding that a decision about Rhinestone Cowboy's Festival target had yet to be made. The seven-year-old holds entries in both the Champion Hurdle and Coral Cup; in the latter his amateur rider J P Magnier, son of owner John of that ilk, can claim a 7lb allowance. "A lot will depend on the ground," said O'Neill. "Perhaps he might even run in both."

Watching from the sidelines here yesterday was Richard Johnson, who expects to be back in action at the beginning of next week after injuring his arm at Taunton on Thursday. Johnson, who is challenging Tony McCoy for the jockeys' title, was unseated from Terek at the third-last in a novices' handicap chase at the Somerset track. "I'm unable to move my arm properly at the moment," he said, "but hopefully I'll be back on Monday or Tuesday. I can lift it and bend it, but I can only bend it so far. I've come here to see the physio and hopefully she'll get it moving."