Nicky Henderson has once again contrived to turn the shortest month into one apparently without end, forswearing alcohol as he prepares his stable for the challenge that defines its whole year. The Seven Barrows trainer must endure only four more days on the wagon, but there is another fortnight after that before he finally reaches the Cheltenham Festival.
"And it's a very fraught time for everyone," he said yesterday, as he presented his team to a media open morning. "If we can get this lot there without something going wrong, it'll be nothing short of a miracle. Every night you go round, every cough you hear, every beat is monitored. I envy the Flat boys. When they've finished with the Guineas, they've got Epsom and Ascot and Goodwood and York and Chester and everything else. And while Aintree have done a great job, in fairness our whole season hinges on these four days at Cheltenham."
Little wonder, then, if the mild spring air in Lambourn was saturated with a delicious tension. The last two horses on parade were Binocular, who defends the Stan James Champion Hurdle on the opening day of the meeting; and Long Run, whose breakthrough success in the King George VI Chase announced him as the young pretender against three previous winners in the Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup on its final afternoon. Binocular would make Henderson the first to train six Champion Hurdle winners; Long Run, in contrast, would redress one of the few remaining omissions in his CV.
"He'd be the best chance we've had in the Gold Cup, and by quite a long way," Henderson acknowledged. "People have this thing about him round Cheltenham, but I'm not worried by that. In the RSA Chase last year, we'd had an inkling a week before – his coat, his whole demeanour, had just gone. He'd had a long campaign. And then in the Paddy Power, going that real lick over two miles five furlongs, he just got out of his comfort zone early on. We've done a lot of work on that, and what was so good at Kempton was the rhythm of his jumping."
As for Binocular, Henderson does not share Tony McCoy's concerns about that rather perfunctory rehearsal at Sandown. He reiterated that a steady pace and small field were never going to flatter this horse, and also made the intriguing suggestion that the obstacles that day had been set up "like gates", inhibiting even this most electric of jumpers. "I know he wasn't everyone's cup of tea at Sandown," Henderson said. "But he's been looked at, head to toe, and everyone has given him ticks all the way. It looks a very good race, and I do respect Hurricane Fly, but as long as our horse is at last year's level he'll take a lot of beating."
With 37 career wins, Henderson stands just three short of Fulke Walwyn's Festival record and will be formidably represented in every grade and discipline. Having initially been inclined to wait for Aintree with Riverside Theatre, he now favours a crack at the Ryanair Chase, while as usual he has a couple of dashing novice chasers in Finian's Rainbow and Master Of The Hall. Perhaps his most infectious enthusiasm, however, was for an alliterative pair in the Stan James Supreme Novices' Hurdle. And while he clearly adores Sprinter Sacre, he reluctantly chose Spirit Son for his charity bet. "Sprinter Sacre is the most beautiful horse," he stressed. "He has huge natural talent and is going to make a wonderful chaser next season. He's just a bit raw. But the other one is a ready-made speed car, thoroughly professional."
Henderson had a reverse later in the day when Minella Class was given the slip by Aikman at Huntingdon. The winner gives James Ewart, his go-ahead trainer, a big chance to put Scottish racing on the map at the Festival. On the same card, Starluck made a proficient debut over fences, but his trainer, Alan Fleming, cautioned that he may yet wait for Aintree. Definitely sitting out Cheltenham is Hurricane Cyclone, who won again at Thurles despite rather losing concentration; Bishopsfurze, dropping out to fourth, proved a rare disappointment for Willie Mullins.
Qalinas (1.45 Sandown) French import who has so far been set plenty to do in decent company round Taunton.
China Gold (4.00 Sandown) Encouraging comeback last month, on the bridle a long way despite being too keen early.
One to watch
Quite The Man (Malcolm Jefferson) Gave the winner too much of a start off a steady pace at Market Rasen last week.
Where the money's going
Taqleed is 8-1 from 12-1 with the sponsors for the William Hill Lincoln Handicap at Doncaster in April.