He can hardly expect the entire week to work out quite so smoothly, but its first hour of earnest competition certainly offered Nicky Henderson an encouraging template. He arrived here yesterday with the odds-on favourite for both the first two races – and neither gave him any more cause for alarm than would be reasonable to expect of a horse making its debut, as they respectively did, over hurdles or fences.
It was the perfect tonic for a trainer preparing several of his best prospects for a critical examination. Henderson is likely to saddle more than a dozen of them over the three days of the Hennessy meeting, which starts at Newbury on Thursday, and also has Binocular reappearing in the WBX Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle on Saturday.
At the best of times, Henderson is prone to fretting, and this season he is also spurred by wounded pride, having served a suspension over the summer for that excruciating breach of doping regulations. But the good fettle of his string was reflected by the remarkable performance of Zaynar at Ascot on Saturday, and he acknowledged consecutive wins for Candy Creek and You're The Top as a further boost to morale.
"It's a big week," he said. "Very big. When you look at the team we're firing into the weekend, there's a lot of very nice horses. But then it's always the same, at this time of year. Leading up to Christmas, you have to sort things out a bit."
He had begun his day by pairing two of the biggest guns, Punchestowns and Barbers Shop, in their work at Seven Barrows in Lambourn. Punchestowns, beaten only by Big Buck's last season, contests a valuable novice chase on Friday's card at Newbury, while Barbers Shop, last seen trying his luck in the Gold Cup at Cheltenham, resurfaces in the Hennessy itself on Saturday. Thanks to the presence of Denman, at the top of the handicap, he gets in with just 10st 8lb.
"I'm not a genius at these things, but you don't have to be one to look at the Hennessy weights and say that it's the sensible thing to do," Henderson remarked. "I suppose an easy three miles might suit me better than a stiff three miles two. But he stays. I was watching the Gold Cup again the other day and he missed the third last quite badly, you know – and going to the top of the hill we were in very good order. Denman's going to be very hard to beat. But he is beatable, as I'm sure Paul [Nicholls] would agree. And if we have any pretensions to having a Grade One horse, we have got to be competitive on Saturday."
Punchestowns was also given an entry over three miles, on Thursday, but Henderson is adamant that two and a half miles will suit him better. "Looking at him over hurdles, there were times when you wondered whether he was getting three," he said. "But he'll get it in time, over fences. He's been working well. He's done everything I've asked of him so far, I must admit."
Henderson's winners here certainly lived up to expectations. Candy Creek, imported from Ireland after winning the mares' bumper at Aintree, made an awful mess of the third but gave Tony McCoy few problems thereafter. "She was a bit fresh, which I wasn't expecting, as she's very laid-back about life at home," Henderson said. "She wasn't concentrating at all over the first four. Tony said she'll get farther, but to give her another run over two miles first to settle her down."
You're The Top proved a chip off the old block, another bold Henderson novice skipping round one of the trainer's favourite tracks – and, remarkably, a sixth consecutive course winner for his owner, Michael Buckley. "That was as soft as he would want it," Henderson said. "We'll have to mind him during the winter. But he jumped great and he's growing all the time, in belief, confidence, everything."
Binocular is likely to face a strong Irish challenge at Newcastle, headed by Solwhit, a stylish winner on his reappearance at Punchestown, and Sublimity, who has run well on the Flat since undergoing what his trainer prefers to call a "procedure" – rather than an "operation" – on his wind. "He seems as good as ever," Robbie Hennessy said. "He's jumping brilliantly. Philip [Carberry] came over from France on Thursday to school him and he's working very well."
Donald McCain kept up his terrific run with four winners yesterday, including a double here. Whiteoak, his first Cheltenham Festival winner, seemed to discover a new lease of life on her first start over three miles in the Starlight Foundation Mares' Hurdle, and was introduced at 12-1 by Totesport for the Ladbrokes World Hurdle.
Turf account: Chris McGrath
Silk Gallery (2.00 Southwell)
Deserves another chance after disappointing on her last visit here, having looked on the upgrade.
Master Fong (12.50 Sedgefield)
Jumping fell to pieces as he tired on his hurdling debut at Bangor but had shown plenty of promise up to that point.
One to watch
Shifting Star (W R Swinburn) lost his way during turf campaign but looked on way back when finishing well on his Wolverhampton comeback.
*Where the money's going
Barbers Shop is 6-1 from 7-1 with Totesport for the Hennessy Gold Cup on Saturday.