It scarcely helps Nicky Henderson that he could train a horse for Cheltenham in his sleep, as the next 13 nights will clearly be spent staring at the ceiling. The man who stands on the brink of Festival history – with 39 career winners at the meeting, he is just one short of Fulke Walwyn's record – was yesterday asked whether he has settled on a target for Simonsig, the exciting young hurdler with two options. "At two o'clock in the morning, I'm going for one race," Henderson sighed. "At four o'clock, I'm going for the other."
Not that he's complaining. "If it got easier every year, to be honest I don't think I'd still be doing it," he said. "If you didn't have the worry, you couldn't have the buzz." To that extent, he might even discover some comfort in the ritual nuisance of his media open morning, at which he paraded one of the market leaders for each and every championship race at the Festival.
As the rooks enacted their own springtime preparations, high among branches traced against a lifeless sky, their sardonic tones seemed to mock the excitement coursing beneath the mossy tiles of the old stableyard. But Henderson has been in thrall to Cheltenham since his own fledgling days – the son, after all, of a man, Jonny Henderson, who did much to save the place from developers.
Top of the bill, naturally, remains Long Run, who looks in ripping condition for the defence of his Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup, but the abiding impression was of the sheer depth to Henderson's team. For the other elite prizes, he has young pretenders in Finian's Rainbow and Oscar Whisky, and a rejuvenated pair in Binocular and Riverside Theatre; and then there are the novices, over both fences and hurdles, the likes of Sprinter Sacre and Simonsig himself. It is tempting to believe he has never had a stronger team.
"Except that's what everyone was saying last year," he said, invoking the series of near misses that left him distinctly queasy by the final day. Bobs Worth finally relieved the siege, just in time for Long Run, and will himself be returning for the RSA Chase with confidence seemingly undiminished by consecutive defeats – thanks to the wind operation that divided them. "He's looking 10 times better than he did before the Reynoldstown Chase at Ascot," Henderson observed. "He was just a bit backwards and left round there, but the last time I was at Cheltenham it was left-handed."
Bobs Worth will accompany Long Run to one of Yogi Breisner's jumping tutorials next Wednesday, but Henderson was delighted by the Gold Cup winner's technique when he gave 10lb to Burton Port, at Newbury 12 days ago. Burton Port will follow his stablemate to the Gold Cup, albeit Henderson admits to anxiety that he may recoil from that comeback effort – and computes the improvement required, thanks to Long Run's indolence in front, as rather more than is implied merely by a turnaround in the weights.
Long Run and Sprinter Sacre will book-end the 2012 Festival for Seven Barrows, the latter being an electrifying favourite for the Racing Post Arkle Chase on the opening afternoon. "With all these others, we're up against horses that are blatantly going to be tough to beat," Henderson said. "With Oscar Whisky, for instance, we know that Big Buck's is going to tough it out, and don't know whether we will have the stamina. We have the speed, but if we're not on the bridle coming down the hill, we know we're dead. But Sprinter Sacre is different. He's the one we're taking there that everyone else is frightened of. And the way he does everything – well, it makes it pretty frightening for us to watch. It would make the week much easier if I could just get him home on the first night, tucked up in bed with a first next to his name.
"It's a nerve-racking time for all of us. Trainers, owners, jockeys. Not so long ago we had three Champion Hurdle horses. Ten days later, Spirit Son and Grandouet were out, and we had one [Binocular]. There will be more dramas to come, we all know that. You just pray you can get yours there in one piece."
Chris McGrath's Nap
Saves Time (3.45 Folkestone) Can do better again in blinkers over this longer distance.
Dawn Commander (4.25 Bangor) Irish import has shaped like a stayer on both starts since his arrival and can prove as much now raised in trip for his handicap debut.
One to watch
Cue To Cue (Keith Reveley) Could not match a couple of speedier types at Newcastle on Saturday but should prove herself well treated once given a stiffer test.
Where the money's going
Hunt Ball is 10-1 from 12-1 with William Hill for the Byrne Group Plate at Cheltenham.
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