Racing: Henderson so healthy

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AS IF it was the slightest bit necessary, the inmates of Nick Henderson's stables gave notice here they are cherry-ripe for the Cheltenham Festival 15 days hence. The Seven Barrows string have been in rude health all season and win number 50 was posted on the board on Friday.

Henderson's first three runners yesterday, Premier Generation, Makounji and Katarino, knocked off the first three towards the second half-century with precision and ensured that the trainer won his own weight in champagne as the Sunbury course's leading trainer. Apparently 12 stone equals 49 bottles.

Of the trio, the one with the most obvious championship aspirations was Katarino, who has headed the Triumph Hurdle market since he trounced Simply Gifted at Cheltenham in November. Minor ailments had kept the French-bred four-year-old off the track since then, but when Simply Gifted bolted in at Haydock in deeply impressive fashion some two hours before his conqueror turned out in the Adonis Hurdle, the omens looked propitious.

And the odds were landed. Mick Fitzgerald had to get to work down the straight as Katarino's slight ring-rustiness began to tell, but once he found his second wind he quickened away from Scarlet Pimpernel readily to score by eight lengths.

"I think that proves he's still around," said Henderson, referring to the reports on racing's rumour machine that had Katarino left with three legs at most. "This run was what he needed. He took a good blow turning down the back and he'll be a lot sharper next time."

Katarino's connections have an ambitious spring and summer programme planned. After the Cheltenham, Aintree and Punchestown festivals the little bay gelding will return to the land of his birth for a tilt at the French version of the Triumph at Auteuil in June.

For a steeplechaser it helps to be young and female, like Makounji. The five-year-old mare, another import from France, gets both the age and sex weight allowances and made the most of her advantage as she jumped accurately and intelligently and strode majestically clear of No Retreat to take the Pendil Novices' Chase by 27 lengths.

Her Festival target has yet to be decided. She holds entries in the Arkle Chase, the novices' two-mile championship, and the Cathcart Chase over half a mile further, yesterday's distance. Henderson said: "She does seem to get the longer trip well, but on the other hand two and a half round here would be more like two at Cheltenham."

If Makounji runs in the Cathcart, she will have to take on the three- length winner of the Racing Post Chase, Dr Leunt, and the Gloucestershire course probably owes the Philip Hobbs-trained chestnut one. Four years ago he was disqualified after finishing second in a rough race for the Triumph Hurdle and fractured a bone in his foot. As a result of the injury he runs with a metal pin in a foreleg. Richard Dunwoody kept Dr Leunt in the van the whole way yesterday, despite two errors. He and The Land Agent drew a long way clear of third-placed Even Flow.

Robert Alner's tactics in re-routing last year's Racing Post Chase winner, Super Tactics, to the mile-shorter Emblem Chase proved, well, super. And the same adjective could be used to describe the ride given the 11-year- old by Andrew Thornton who, with stamina up his sleeve, set out in front to run his rivals ragged.

He succeeded with all except Kadastrof, who made ground under driving up the straight and took a narrow lead before the last. But Thornton was in no mood to be denied. He and his partner regained the advantage and then repelled a final flourish by Kadastrof by the width of the whiskers on Super Tactics' muzzle.

At Haydock the Greenalls Grand National Trial went to a horse not engaged at Aintree, Peter Beaumont-trained Young Kenny. His victory, from Henderson's perennial runner-up Fiddling The Facts, was fine compensation for his misfortune in the Eider Chase last week, when his jockey was dislodged in a collision with another horse at the first fence.