Poor old Nicky Henderson is really struggling, now that Mick Fitzgerald has finally packed up. His new stable jockey, Barry Geraghty, is limping along at a strike-rate of one-in-three, and Henderson could scrape together only the five winners last Saturday. The three at Ascot were all ridden by Geraghty, while yesterday the new partnership also made a perfect start to the Hennessy Gold Cup meeting, one of the biggest of the year here at Henderson's local track.
That was not particularly by dint of their success in the opener, with Carole's Legacy, but rather a matter of how the day had begun, back at Seven Barrows. With bated breath, Henderson had watched Trabolgan trace out something of the vibrancy he showed in winning the Hennessy itself, three years ago tomorrow. And, for once in his life, Trabolgan seemed to emerge unscathed. "Barry schooled him over 10 fences, and he was very good," Henderson said. "It was the first time he's left the ground since the Hennessy."
This is the horse who had already beaten a subsequent Grand National winner, Comply Or Die, in the novices' championship at the Festival. But it turned out that his legs are made of Wedgwood, and only now is Henderson daring to draw up plans.
The trainer is pretty clear on the destination, less so on the route. "It has crossed my dotty mind to start over hurdles," he admitted. "Because there just isn't a race for him over fences. He's in the Boylesports Gold Cup, but I can't really see that being an ideal place to start, flat out over two and a half miles. In fairness, the handicapper has made a gesture to the horse, and put him back down to the same mark off which he won the Hennessy. But wherever he goes, I'll be working back from March."
Henderson's year always revolves around his meticulous preparations for the Cheltenham Festival, but his stable has certainly landed running this autumn and another big day beckons tomorrow. Oedipe is one of the Hennessy favourites, thanks to an impressive success at Aintree in the spring, but Geraghty surrenders the mount to Andrew Tinkler in order to ride Punjabi in the WBX Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle. Punjabi, the Smurfit Champion Hurdle third, must look to his laurels at Seven Barrows after the spectacular reappearance of Binocular at Haydock last weekend.
"Last year Punjabi went straight to the Christmas Hurdle, and it was a bit of a rush to get him there," Henderson recalled. "This time he has done plenty of work – much of it, I must admit, with Binocular. Obviously we've not been trying to find out if one is better than the other, but they can help each other. I mean, I can run faster than Oedipe at home, but I wouldn't go very far with Punjabi."
Oedipe's indolence prompts Henderson's one reservation, if conditions were to deteriorate. "A real slog might be a concern," he conceded. "I'm not saying he wouldn't stay, because we think he will. He's not a hard horse to get fit, but he's lazy, and it is his first run."
The Hennessy favourite is Big Buck's, whose trainer, Paul Nicholls, came up with another horse too good for Straw Bear in the next race. Top class over hurdles, Straw Bear had been annihilated by Tatenen at Cheltenham and this time could finish only third to Pasco, a horse Nicholls candidly placed in his second tier of novices. Nick Gifford, at once sending Straw Bear off to be scoped, admitted his flagship horse to be "a head-scratcher at the moment."
As for Big Buck's, Nicholls acknowledged that he remains a little timid in his approach to fences, albeit his schooling is a good deal more athletic and positive than in his novice season. The champion trainer also revisited the performance of Kauto Star at Haydock last Saturday, flat out when unseating over the last. "He's 100 per cent sound and cantered this morning," Nicholls said. "It was a slowly run race and, if you think about it, every time people say he is unimpressive, it has been a sprint. He wants a test of stamina nowadays."
Kauto Star had won only one race in Britain when Trabolgan was last seen, so his problems are relative – and no less so, in terms of the resources available, the achievement of Jeremy Scott in winning the day's biggest prize with Gone To Lunch. Scott has just a dozen boxes in his Somerset yard, but Gone To Lunch was beaten just a neck in a Grade One at Aintree in the spring and Tony McCoy got right to the bottom of him here, under pressure early but outstaying Tartak. It was a triumph of splendid perseverance – just not quite on the scale of the one at first light, up the road at Seven Barrows.