It may be 25 years since he has been champion trainer, but there was a clue here as to why Nicky Henderson is poised to become the winningmost of his profession at his sport's showcase occasion. He needs just one winner to match the late Fulke Walwyn's tally of 40 Cheltenham Festival victories, having acquired that enviable knack of being able to produce the equine athletes in his care spot-on when it matters.
Witness Riverside Theatre, who put his rivals to the sword in yesterday's Ascot Chase. A few weeks after announcing his place at the top table with an even more impressive victory in the same Grade One contest 12 months previously, the gelding suffered a stress fracture to his pelvis. For him to have returned in the same imperious fitness and form is a tribute to both his talent and his preparation.
The eight-year-old settled kindly behind a steady early pace, travelling smoothly and jumping accurately before Barry Geraghty, in the saddle, started to up the ante as the field turned from Swinley Bottom to face the uphill run over the last five fences. The only one who could go with him was Medermit, but although his presence three lengths behind kept Riverside Theatre honest, he was always second-best, and it was another 20 back to the third home, Gauvain.
"Nicky gets them well-tuned and ready without being over the top," said Geraghty, "and simply a pleasure to ride. We know this horse is a class act and he was able to show it by being relaxed and able to get on with his job. And it makes mine so much easier when they're like that."
The son of King's Theatre, who runs in the colours of the actor Jimmy Nesbitt, now heads for the Ryanair Chase at next month's Festival, his target last year before his injury intervened. "Barry was brave to go on as early as he did," said the Lambourn-based Henderson, "but the horse was pretty straight. We're back to where we left off and, touch wood, I won't have to make the same awful phone call again to the owner a week before Cheltenham."
Riverside Theatre is now jostling for Ryanair favouritism in most lists alongside Somersby and the Irish contenders Noble Prince and Rubi Light, who had presented his own credentials with a bloodless success yesterday at Gowran Park.
The other seamless return to elite competition here yesterday concerned Robert Thornton, whose determination in reducing his own injury-enforced absence from the predicted three months to two brought the reward and satisfaction of a Cheltenham-bound novices' double, the chaser Invictus and the four-year-old hurdler Balder Succes.
Invictus is bound for the RSA Chase after showing a notably accurate technique in his three-length defeat of Bobs Worth in the Reynoldstown Chase, a contest taken in recent years by Our Vic, Albertas Run, Carruthers and Burton Port. "He's a very good jumper," confirmed Thornton, who had broken an arm in a fall in December. "He's one of those who can spot his mark himself, 10 strides out, and even if you think he's going a bit long he knows he's got the scope and you just have to put your hands on his withers and trust him."
Henderson reported Friday's Newbury winners Long Run and SprinterSacre none the worse for their efforts and Binocular completed a good afternoon for Seven Barrows by trouncing Celestial Halo in his Champion Hurdle warm-up at Wincanton.
But otherwise the day belonged to Colin Tizzard, whose stable sent out five winners at three tracks in less than an hour. Grand Vision (5-1), Ceepeegee (7-1), Cannington Brook (100-30), Royal Guardsman (4-1) and Theatre Guide (9-4) completed a 3,376-1 nap hand.