Philip Hobbs and Paul Nicholls have been sharing out most of the big pre-Christmas presents between them, but it was only a matter of time before Nicky Henderson joined the party.
Four wins and a couple of near misses last Saturday did not compensate for the loss of one of Seven Barrows’ most talented stalwarts, Oscar Whisky, but they did signal Henderson’s return to top form and there is the promise of more of the same at Cheltenham this afternoon.
Hargam (12.15 Cheltenham), second favourite for the Triumph Hurdle following his encouraging jumping debut last month, is a fairly obvious pick in the trial, but Vaniteux will cause a bit of a stir if he can turn over The New One in the International Hurdle.
The New One, an unlucky third in last season’s Champion Hurdle and the leading home hope to repel the strong Irish challenge next March, has looked as good as ever on his two winning starts in this campaign.
But though still relatively young, he may be vulnerable to the best of the new crop of second-season hurdlers, like Supreme Novices’ Hurdle third Vaniteux, who was having only his fifth start under Rules when runner-up under top weight in a hot handicap at Prestbury last month. Giving 8lb to the progressive Vaniteux (3.10 Cheltenham) is a big ask and might prove just beyond The New One.
Rock On Ruby (3.45 Cheltenham) is not quite the class act he was, but the 2012 Champion Hurdle winner has always been tactically versatile and that will stand him in good stead in a small field for the Relkeel Hurdle against Lac Fontana and Henderson’s Volnay De Thaix.
For Nicholls, this season’s big breakthrough came when Caid Du Berlais swooped late under Sam Twiston-Davies to land the Paddy Power Gold Cup at the Open meeting; now this improving five-year-old aims to follow up in the Caspian Caviar Gold Cup. It is a double rarely achieved, but today’s contest looks considerably less competitive and Caid Du Berlais (2.00 Cheltenham) remains attractively handicapped.
“Obviously it’s fairly hard to win both races, but he did only go up 5lb, which I was quite pleased about,” said Nicholls, who also sees the less testing ground as a positive.
Binge Drinker (2.35 Cheltenham) attempts to make it four out of four over hurdles in another Festival trial and, although this is by far his stiffest assignment, hopes are high he can become a natural successor to the Rebecca Curtis stable’s staying hurdler At Fishers Cross, who could now be tried over fences.
Cheltenham’s International meeting is live today on Channel 4 RacingReuse content