To the extent that he must choose the lesser of two evils, you could say that Nicky Henderson finds himself between a rock and a hard place. Perhaps the expression is better reserved, however, for when Britain's saturated racecourses compound his dilemma by freezing over. For now, conditions are better suited to barges than thoroughbreds – much to the vexation of a trainer trying to navigate a course for perhaps the best string of jumpers in the land. "The whole thing is a complete nightmare," Henderson admitted yesterday. "It's now getting into a no-joke area, and I'm quietly going mad."
Once again, the Seven Barrows trainer is agonising over the idea of giving some of his top horses their first start of the season in going that could send them one step forwards, and two steps back. Two weekends ago, he decided that discretion was the better part of valour and scratched Sprinter Sacre and Darlan from engagements at Cheltenham. Last Saturday, however, he sent three other big guns out into the mire – and they respectively returned with a win, a score draw and a crushing defeat. Oscar Whisky coped serenely with conditions at Ascot; Long Run made a perfectly creditable comeback at Haydock, conceding a start in both tactics and fitness to Silviniaco Conti; but Finian's Rainbow ran deplorably at Ascot.
"And if you'd asked me the order of their chances, I would have said he was the banker," Henderson said. "He'd been working fantastically in deteriorating ground, but couldn't do a thing on Saturday. We've had a look down his scope but didn't see anything and Barry [Geraghty, his jockey] is absolutely adamant that it was ground, nothing else, and just to forget about it. It's funny, the horse has come back fresh – it didn't bottom him or anything. He just didn't go."
Finian's Rainbow duly retained his place alongside Long Run and Riverside Theatre, as potential candidates for the William Hill King George VI Chase, in a photocall to promote the big meeting at Kempton on Boxing Day. Some wonder whether their stablemate, Bobs Worth, could yet overtake all three during his second season over fences, but for now Henderson can barely predict his movements even this Saturday.
Though the RSA Chase winner is favourite for the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury, his trainer is candidly concerned by the heavy ground. "For a young horse, three and a quarter miles in that going is hardly ideal, first time out," Henderson acknowledged. "We are nervous about it. But what do you do? It could stay like this all winter. And he worked really well this morning, on grass as soft as I've ever seen it here. But then I couldn't believe Finian's Rainbow wouldn't handle it. I'll walk the track and then talk to the owners."
Henderson already has the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown in the back of his mind as a possible Christmas target for Bobs Worth, Kempton having long been a priority for the other trio. "Though Finian's Rainbow probably wouldn't go if the ground stayed this way," he warned. "The plan all along has been for Riverside Theatre to go straight there, and Long Run has taken Haydock very well. Ruby [Walsh, on Silviniaco Conti] dictated the race he wanted, but at least that meant we didn't get into the sort of horrible slog we had with Kauto Star last year. This was a gentler reintroduction, for which I'd be quietly grateful."
Darlan's rescheduled comeback, at Newcastle on Saturday, already seems menaced by the weather and Henderson's next headache may be to keep him apart from other Champion Hurdle types in his care, such as Grandouet. "I might have the keys," he said. "But I've got to find the right locks."
Chris McGrath's Nap
Langham Lily (4.50 Wolverhampton) Qualified for a modest mark while learning the ropes in maidens and has looked unlucky not to win both starts since switched to handicaps over longer trips, notably when hampered at Lingfield last time.
See The Storm (3.40 Lingfield) Flourishing for this yard and arguably would have won but for being trapped wide at Wolverhampton last time, having again travelled powerfully. Remains ahead of his mark.
One to watch
Rakaan (Jamie Osborne) is well treated now and promised to take advantage when doing much the best of those held up, finishing fast for second, at Kempton the other day.
Where the money's going
Tidal Bay is 7-1 from 10-1 with William Hill for the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury on Saturday.