Henderson shows faith in his beaten champions
These things tend to level themselves out in the end. Just as an unnervingly mild, dry autumn could not last forever, so Nicky Henderson knows that the very best horses in his care will ultimately complete a cycle rendered almost as inexorable by his past champions.
He paraded the latest generation before the cameras at Seven Barrows yesterday morning, as ragged black clouds still tumbled in the gale that had finally thrashed the trees bare. Here was Long Run, the champion steeplechaser, taught a memorable lesson by the evergreen Kauto Star at Haydock 11 days ago; and here was Binocular, a former champion hurdler, likewise beaten on his reappearance at Newcastle last weekend. But while lesser animals in the yard continue in rampant form – to the extent that he won with all seven of his runners the previous Monday – its elite will always reserve their very best for Cheltenham in March.
Both Long Run and Binocular were beaten first time out last season as well, but laid sufficient foundations to proceed to Grade One success at Kempton on Boxing Day. And Henderson, who had opened his stable on behalf of the meeting's promoters, is satisfied that they will defend their trophies – respectively in the William Hill King George VI Chase and Christmas Hurdle – with undiminished verve.
It must be said that Long Run could scarcely have endured a rougher comeback than Kauto Star gave him in the Betfair Chase. "But if he did have a hard race, he has come out of it very well indeed," Henderson said. "He seems very bright and breezy. Of course it was disappointing, to see him beaten – but it wasn't a disaster. You could go on dissecting the race as long as you like, but the fact is that he does get a bit rusty and he was too fresh in the early stages. Was his first run last season any better? It probably wasn't as good. And his jumping, until those two mistakes, was absolutely brilliant – better than ever before."
The mistakes in question were palpably provoked by the unsparing demands made by a super-fit Kauto Star, and Henderson did indicate that Long Run's rider, Sam Waley-Cohen, would ride a more patient race if the winner is again waiting for them at Kempton. Either way, he was thrilled by the way Long Run rallied for second after initially dropping away.
"Okay, the other horse made him make that first mistake," he said. "Fair enough. But then he went back for more, and got a bit of another dose. And that really knocked him back. It's easy in hindsight, but I suppose after that first mistake, you might just let it happen. I wouldn't think he'll be taking on Kauto Star that early at Kempton. But on the day Sam just found him tanking, full of exuberance, and was suddenly landing upsides. We're not going to make acres of excuses. We were beaten fair and square. But Paul [Nicholls] had got Kauto Star pretty ready for the day. We'd got pretty ready, as well, but not ready enough."
Certainly he retains every confidence in the horse's rider, whose amateur partnership with a horse owned by his father ultimately won over even the most cynical punters last season. Some, admittedly, felt that Waley-Cohen looked at least as rusty as his mount at Haydock. "But Sam's got a fantastic attitude," Henderson protested. "It's not that he doesn't care, but he's got a very cool head, and he's very positive. I know it's not the same for him as for the boys doing it seven days a week. But he's very fit, very focused, and has lots of belief – both in himself and in his horse. It certainly doesn't worry me one iota."
Just as Long Run's season works backwards from the Cheltenham Festival, so those who fancy Finian's Rainbow for the Queen Mother Champion Chase should not be too alarmed that he sits out his intended comeback at Sandown on Saturday. The horse is "not quite ready" and will probably now be targeted at Kempton on 27 December.
As for Binocular, he has now been turned over at odds-on when reappearing in the "Fighting Fifth" Hurdle three years running. "He probably thinks we ought to try something different," Henderson said wryly. "But Overturn is a very hard horse to pass, and we met him at the very top of his game. Like Long Run, Binocular will go to Kempton with exactly the same profile as last year. We're not early birds, everyone knows that. There's a long way to go."
Chris McGrath's Nap
Ngong Hills (2.0 Catterick) Faces a less exposed rival in Streamtown and nor would he want too much rain, but reliable and very fairly handicapped.
Main Beach (6.30 Kempton) Impressive round here last time and could offer value against Mottley Crewe, who looks effective on the deeper surface at Southwell.
One to watch
Tullamore Dew (Nick Gifford) is going to pop up in a decent handicap sooner or later, palpably failing to get home over the longer trip in the Hennessy last Saturday.
Where the money's going
Peddlers Cross is now 4-1 from 5-1 for the Irish Independent Arkle Trophy at Cheltenham in March.
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