Spirit willing for Henderson's Champion tilt


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The Independent Online

When the man who has won two of the last three Champion Hurdles speaks, it perhaps pays to attend. And, as Nicky Henderson runs the rule over his three contenders for the Cheltenham showpiece eight weeks today, the only trick may be to listen between the lines.

Binocular, the winner two years ago, has been there, done that; Grandouet is the shortest of the trio in the ante-post betting. But it may be that Spirit Son, the least experienced of the three, is the one that has Henderson's heart beating fastest.

The French-bred six-year-old, who carries the colours of one of his stable's longest-term patrons, Michael Buckley, beat all bar Al Ferof in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle last year before toying with Cue Card at Aintree. After a slight setback in the autumn he has yet to appear this term, but this week, with a racecourse gallop scheduled, should bring that day closer.

"He did look good last season but even so I felt the Festival was perhaps just a year too soon for him," Henderson said yesterday. "But though he did not quite get home up the hill he ran a great race and then was very impressive next time. And physically, he has progressed enormously; he seems twice the size and strength he was a year ago. That little hiccup he had took us back a bit and we had to stand still for a short time. But we are up to date now. He will have only one run before Cheltenham."

That is more likely to be in the Contenders Hurdle at Sandown early next month than the Irish Champion Hurdle on Sunday week, the comeback target for the reigning champion and warm favourite Hurricane Fly, likewise unraced since last season.

Though another beaten at last year's Festival, Grandouet, was one of last year's best juveniles and has made a fairly seamless transition to senior company – making amends for an early-season fall when poised to beat seasoned campaigner Celestial Halo – with two smooth victories, including at Cheltenham last month. "He's done very little wrong," Henderson said. "We were concentrating in the first part of the season on easy tracks as there seemed to be a consensus of opinion that last year he was suited to speed tracks. But he's proved himself on the undulations of Cheltenham and we're geared up to the big one." Grandouet's prep will be in the Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton next month.

Chris McGrath's nap

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