Just as the batsman intent on a really big score treats the single that takes him to his century as just another milestone, rather than a landmark, so Nicky Henderson will be too preoccupied with the possibility of hitting the ball out of the ground to dwell too long on the nudge-and-nurdle success of Higgy's Ragazzo at Market Rasen yesterday. Even so, the fact that he duly became the first trainer to 100 winners this season – and faster than ever before in his prolific career – represents another powerful statement.
Paul Nicholls retains a lead of over £250,000 in the prize-money table but has already acknowledged that their relative fortunes at Cheltenham next month could place his title in jeopardy for the first time since he ushered Martin Pipe into retirement five years ago. The two rivals dominate another significant prize at Newbury on Saturday, with Henderson saddling Riverside Theatre, runner-up to Long Run at Kempton last month, against What A Friend in the Aon Chase. With the title in mind, however, the £120,000 prize fund of the Totesport Trophy could prove rather more significant – and Henderson has a formidable record in the event. Admittedly, he professes himself astonished that Solix has been backed so heavily to give him a fifth success in the race, without ever having raced in this country. But the trainer also has Soldatino, who shaped well at Ascot last month on his first start since winning the Triumph Hurdle last March.
As usual, Henderson is spending February on the wagon, but his peerless Festival record suggests he will have ample opportunity to make up for lost time next month. With Oscar Whisky having emerged as a second string, he is himself contributing to what looks a tougher task for Binocular in the defence of the Stan James Champion Hurdle. Oscar Whisky's sole defeat to date remains his fourth place behind Menorah in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle, and the runner-up that day, Get Me Out Of Here, has been well supported in recent days to repeat his success last year in the Totesport Trophy.
If this was indeed an exceptional bunch of novices, Philip Hobbs will hope to be justified in having kept Menorah so fresh for the Champion. Yesterday he issued a notably positive bulletin on the horse's preparations. "He worked brilliantly this morning," the Somerset trainer said. "We stepped up his work earlier than anticipated, due to the fact he's put on a bit of condition having had an easy time in December – which is a good fault. I'd rather have it that way, so we can work him hard and get him fitter. I couldn't be more happy with him. This is one of the best Champion Hurdles we've had for some time [but] I'm very, very pleased with the horse, and feel there's still room for improvement."
Sa Suffit (3.45 Carlisle) Has excellent record fresh and his hurdles rating remains 9lb lower than the one he reached over fences last season.
Viking Visitor (5.0 Ludlow).
One to watch
Soulard (Tom George) Shaped well before failing to get home over a searching three miles at Sandown on Saturday.
Where the money's going
Aberdale is 16-1 from 25-1 with Paddy Power for the National Hunt Chase at the Cheltenham Festival.