Just a fortnight to go, now, and for Nicky Henderson time surely can't pass as slowly as it must have done since Christmas. In January, his Cheltenham preparations were largely suspended by the weather; and then he went on the wagon for February. Yesterday, however, a new month introduced itself in suitably spring-like raiment – and found admirable harmony with the mood at Seven Barrows.
Having long been hunched beneath cold, heavy skies, the Lambourn Downs at last seemed to stir in the sunshine, as though recalling the sway of forgotten summer cornfields. Crows with twigs in their beaks flew busily across the mossy tiles of the historic stableyard. Nowhere, however, did the seeds of renewal take root more obviously than in the horses themselves.
As not only the most prolific Cheltenham trainer in the business, but also the one who finds repose most notoriously elusive during these final days, Henderson is unlikely to have relished the arrival of so many film crews and reporters for his Festival open day. Any misgivings were soon redressed, however, as he paraded the best of 32 likely runners. For while Paul Nicholls will bring more established champions to Cheltenham, even he will envy the latent promise in Henderson's squad.
"That's what's so nice," Henderson said. "It's all about the younger brigade, about the future. That seems to be our strength, the novice hurdlers and novice chasers. We haven't really had a Gold Cup horse, over the years. But I think Punchestowns and Long Run are as good as we've had here in a very long time. Already I'd say they're the best chasers I've had. And, looking around the place, it feels as though the only thing getting older is me."
Henderson has already sent out 106 winners this season, fast approaching the personal best of 115 he set last year. Privately, he remains vexed by the three months during which he was prohibited from making entries last summer, following an embarrassing medication violation. At 59, however, that unhappy saga seems only to have had a rejuvenating effect. Just one consideration ages him now, as he prepares to pitch Long Run and Punchestowns together in the RSA Chase. "My duty is to keep them in one piece and get them where they need to be in two years' time," he said.
For even Kauto Star and Denman must approach the end of their hegemony in the meantime. It was the long view that last month prompted Henderson into a radical experiment with Long Run, the French import who had started off over three miles at Kempton on Boxing Day, dropping him to two miles round Warwick, one of the sharpest tracks in the land.
"That was all to do with the future," he said. "If every race is of a three-mile nature, it has to be a shorter [racing] life. He's only five, and for all the experience he already has in France, I think it will have done him the world of good. It's testament to his freakish ability that we were able to do it."
Though Long Run retains a two-mile entry in the Irish Independent Arkle Trophy, that would only be contemplated on "bottomless" ground. As it happens, Henderson has sometimes wondered whether Punchestowns himself might prove most effective over shorter, though beaten only by Big Buck's in the Ladbrokes World Hurdle last year. "But I'd love to take him on again, and come from behind," he said. "Last year I think we ended up trying to outstay him, which played to his strengths."
Henderson also has impressive Arkle candidates in Riverside Theatre and Mad Max, and several young bucks for the novice hurdles. Among all these pretenders, of course, one horse already wears a crown. But it seems only too typical to their trainer that Punjabi should be overlooked. "He does seem to get forgotten, the poor old thing," Henderson said. "At the moment, they don't find him very sexy."
At least Punjabi defends the Smurfit Champion Hurdle after an impeccable rehearsal at Kempton on Saturday; his young stablemate, Zaynar, had been beaten when even shorter odds at Kelso the previous week. "I'm glad we took Zaynar up there," Henderson reiterated. "It proved how badly he did need a run. But I thought Punjabi was really good at Kempton – it was slick, it was smart, and when he pressed the button, it worked. Last year he got walloped at Wincanton and everyone forgot about him at Cheltenham. But this time everything in his garden is rosy."
He would not be alone in that.
Count Boris (2.30 Catterick)
Three times found one too good since joining Jim Best, but may not do so in this company with a promising jockey claiming 7lb.
Fusaichi Flyer (4.10 Lingfield)
Showed ability in rushing through maidens for a rating, and his handicap debut suggested he might win over this kind of trip.
*One To Watch
Tamtara (Mrs A J Perrett) was spotted going sweetly before meeting traffic and snatching third in her first handicap at Kempton last week.
*Where The Money's Going
Paddy Power will refund losing bets against Dunguib if the hot favourite wins the opener at the Cheltenham Festival a fortnight today.