Binocular puts his Champion Hurdle hopes in sharp focus

Big-race treble puts Henderson back in frame for trainers' title
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The Independent Online

With a slick, quick technique of which Ed Moses would be proud, Binocular consolidated his position at the head of the Champion Hurdle market here yesterday. His victoryin the Boylesports Hurdle was just about as effortless as a two-mile gallopround one of the country's most demanding tracks can be, and as perfect in style as it was deep in substance.

The four-year-old gets from one side of an obstacle to the other with a rare efficiency, and his lightning-fast leaps disposed of four perfectly credible title contenders, including the reigning champion, Katchit. "You can't teach a horse to do what he can do," said his rider, Tony McCoy. "You can teach them to jump and you can improve a bad jumper, but what he does comes from him."

The Ulsterman, in J P McManus's colours, kept Binocular in company with his Nick Henderson stablemate Chomba Womba, Katchit and Crack Away Jack as the Triumph Hurdle winner Celestial Halo, with Ruby Walsh in the saddle, set a searching pace that had him 10 lengths clear at halfway. The chasing pack took closer order half a mile out, but as the leader kept up his gallop it was clear three of his four pursuers could do no more.

But it was equally apparent that Binocular was still hard on the steel, and once McCoy coolly released an inch of rein going to the second-last the gelding surged smoothly past his rival, sprang over the final hurdlelike a well-schooled gazelle and came home four-and-a-half lengths clear,ears pricked.

"He is just very, very quick," added McCoy. "Quick in the air, quick over the ground, very exciting. You don't feel that too often and this was atop-class effort."

Binocular, a best 7-4 for the Champion Hurdle with yesterday's sponsors, was the first leg of a remarkable hat-trick for Henderson, who followed up in the Grade One Long Walk Hurdle with another hugely exciting youngster, Punchestowns, and in the day's feature handicap, the Ladbroke, with Sentry Duty.

"All in all, this was going to be a tense sort of day," said the relieved trainer. "As far as Binocular is concerned, the race was not any sort of prep, it was a proper Champion Hurdle trial for him, he was there to have his mettle tested,and the runner-up certainly did that. The way he gets from one side of a hurdle to another is extraordinary, but he has been a natural from the start."

Binocular has now won five from six since he was recruited from the Flat in France last year, his only defeat coming at Cheltenham, when he was beatenby the older Captain Cee Bee in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle. Whether he runs again before returning to Prestbury Park remains to be seen.

"When I looked at him critically before the race I did think he looked big as a bull," said Henderson, "but he didn't really have a blow afterwards, so we'll see. But he doesn't need any more jumping practice, that's for sure."

Celestial Halo, seven lengths behindBinocular at Aintree in April, kept going to beat Chomba Womba 12 lengths and will have one more run before taking him on again in the Champion Hurdle, but Katchit's next race will be the defence of his crown.

By leaving his stablemate Duc De Regniere bobbing 11 lengths in his wake, Punchestowns leapfrogged his way to the top of the market for his Cheltenham target. He is as short as 2-1 for the World Hurdle. The giant five-year-old's rider, Barry Geraghty, doubled up as 12-1 shot Sentry Duty beat Belcantista (10-1) a length and a half in the Ladbroke, with 66-1 shot Songe a close third, and the Henderson yard's good day was completed when the injury-plagued Trabolgan, running for the first time since winning the Hennessy Gold Cup three years ago, returned unscathed after being pulled up behind Niche Market in the three-mile chase.

Yesterday's haul took Henderson past the £1 million mark and to within£100,000 of the table leader, Paul Nicholls, champion for the past three years. Nicholls notched his own treblein lesser contests, with the Walsh-ridden Gwanako and Red Harbour, and Niche Market, who gave the 19-year-old apprentice Harry Skelton his biggest win to date.

The form of the Seven Barrows horses prompted Hills to reopen their trainers' market. Nicholls is still odds-on, at 2-7, but Henderson, who won consecutive titles in 1985-86 and 1986-87, when See You Then won the last two of his three Champion Hurdles, has been introduced at 5-2. "Today is today," said Henderson phlegmatically."Let's hope they're all like this come March."

More immediately there is a round of lucrative targets over Christmas, starting at Kempton on Boxing Day. Should Binocular add the Champion Hurdle to yesterday's victory he will earn £250,000 extra from Boylesports. But should another of Henderson's talented hurdlers, the Fighting Fifth winner Punjabi, go on to take the Christmas Hurdle and the Cheltenham crown there is a £1m bonus at stake.

Nicholls' Kauto Star will face a maximum of 11 opponents in his bid to match Desert Orchid's three King George VI Chases in a row. They include Our Vic, Imperial Commander, Voy Por Ustedes and supplementedSnoopy Loopy, but not Tidal Bay.