Nicholls teases rival in the run-up to Hennessy raid


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The Independent Online

Though they are the most sporting of rivals, Paul Nicholls did not neglect the opportunity for mischief when making a congratulatory call to Nicky Henderson on Monday evening. The only trainer given any chance of prising the championship away from Nicholls this season had won with all seven of his runners that afternoon, albeit at three low-key meetings. "Seven's great," Nicholls teased him. "But you've got to do it on a Saturday – that's when it counts."

Henderson was doubtless still tender after the "bruising" experience of watching his Cheltenham Gold Cup winner, Long Run, bludgeoned into submission at Haydock on Saturday by Kauto Star, unfeasibly restored to his pomp by Nicholls. This was only the latest in a series of weekend paydays that have already elevated the champion trainer into a clear lead at the top of the table. And nor will Henderson discover much obvious comfort in the two big races at his local track this Saturday.

Nicholls has long cherished the Hennessy Gold Cup. He managed to win it twice during a journeyman riding career, and has won it three times as a trainer. He has three chances this time, including the fancied Aiteen Thirtythree. While he experienced disappointment with another ex-novice – running off a 1lb higher mark – in the Hennessy three years ago, even that was the start of something big. For they don't come any bigger in staying hurdles than Big Buck's, undefeated in a dozen starts over timber since and set to face a small field when he returns to Newbury for the Sportingbet Long Distance Hurdle.

"He's only eight, so he should be pretty good when he's 11 like Kauto," Nicholls joked. "You'd say he's at an age when he should be the best he's ever going to be, and the girl who rides him every day is adamant he's better than ever. Obviously, I've not trained him too hard, with the spring in mind, but he did a great bit of work when he kept Kauto company round Exeter the other day."

As for the Hennessy, Nicholls runs the last two winners of the novice race on Friday's card. If both remain short of experience, they are yet to show their hand to the handicapper.

Ruby Walsh rides Aiteen Thirtythree, who beat just five other finishers in two chases before pulling up in the RSA Chase at the Festival, and was then pitched against Somersby on his reappearance over two and a half miles at Kempton. "That wouldn't have been his track or distance, but I just wanted to get the freshness out of him," Nicholls explained. "I thought he ran a great race. He'd beaten nothing when he won those two races round Newbury last season by half the track, but he looks on a more sensible mark now and he does jump and gallop, which is what you want in the Hennessy. He came back from Cheltenham with sore shins, but we had them pin-fired in the summer and, hopefully, that has made a big difference."

Nicholls is taking an audacious gamble with Michel Le Bon, who disappeared after thrashing one other finisher at the 2009 meeting. "He's got as much ability as Aiteen Thirtythree, if not more," he said. "But can you win a Hennessy in your second chase? " He admits that his third runner, Neptune Collonges, will have his work cut out under top weight despite teenage jockey Harry Derham claiming 7lb.

Turf account

Chris McGrath's Nap

Alakhan (3.15 Lingfield) Last run was better than it looked from a poor draw and pedigree justifies return to this longer distance.

Next best

Fists Of Fury (12.55 Wetherby) Useful hurdler built to do better again over fences, and can readily be excused defeat behind a top prospect last time.

One to watch

Water Garden (David Pipe) Finished well when tried in cheekpieces at Exeter last Sunday, having given the winner a start.

Where the money's going

Binocular is 10-1 from 12-1 with William Hill for the Champion Hurdle ahead of his reappearance at Newcastle on Saturday.