The contrasting Festival histories of the two trainers who dominate the first big race of the week do not bode well for the favourite, Go Native. While Noel Meade has endured a macabre variety of misfortunes here, on his way to just three winners, Nicky Henderson is the most successful Cheltenham operator with 34. But success for Go Native in the Smurfit Champion Hurdle, where three of his 11 rivals are trained by Henderson, would redress any lingering sense of injustice in Meade's Co Meath stables.
By winning the Fighting Fifth and Christmas Hurdles during the winter, Go Native became eligible for a £1m bonus from an online betting exchange, WBX, should he follow up today. A 10th share would go to his groom, Alan McIlroy, who has for several weeks sought to resist counting chickens as he contemplates a life-changing windfall. Another £50,000 would go to the rest of Meade's staff, and every neutral will surely be rooting for Go Native.
Some may also find it in their hearts, however, to wish Henderson well, albeit he has dozens of other chances over the week. Whatever others thought of his humiliation last summer, even the hardest judges can presumably respect the way he has bounced back with the most prolific season of his career.
Henderson was prohibited from making entries for three months, and fined a record £40,000, after one of his horses, owned by the Queen, failed a drugs test. As an Establishment figure, Henderson discovered that justice being seen to be done is a double-edged imperative. So many people were so ardent to see due punishment that it became difficult to be confident whether his case could ever be treated strictly on its merits.
He claims to have dismissed the whole matter long ago, but the relentless form of his stable since may well reflect some injured renewal of focus and ambition. Privately, he remains indignant over his treatment, but he is reluctant to dwell on it. "The whole thing got way out of control," he admits. "The great thing is most people have forgotten all about it. I have, 100 per cent. In my own mind, I never had a guilty conscience. I was just so relieved it was all over. The horses give me all the motivation I need. That's why it's really nice, what we've been doing this season – it's been the youth team. Hopefully, they're the pension."
At 59, that remains a remote consideration. Indeed, with both favourites for the RSA Chase tomorrow, Henderson candidly hopes he can soon break Paul Nicholls's monopoly on the Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup. And how about the trainers' championship, into the bargain? "I'm not really fussed about those kinds of things," he insists. "We were very lucky, we've been there and done that [23 years ago]. I'm not saying you don't want to. I want the best lot of horses I can have. We're all very competitive. If you didn't care, it would soon be time to be giving up."Reuse content