Nicky Henderson will have missed Oscar Whisky every single day since the stable favourite’s fatal fall at Sandown last month, but Cheltenham on Thursday afternoon will be especially poignant.
New Year’s Day at Prestbury Park had become very much “Oscar Whisky Day” in recent years, the tough and popular two-and-a-half-mile specialist winning what is now the Dornan Engineering Hurdle in 2011 and 2012 and then the novice chase 12 months ago.
Henderson at least has serious new talent coming through at Seven Barrows to console himself with, including two exciting hurdling prospects, Beat That and Vaniteux, attempting to follow in Oscar Whisky’s footsteps.
Beat That missed the Cheltenham Festival, but spring wins at Aintree and Punchestown marked him out as arguably the best of last season’s staying novice hurdlers.
He is a solid second favourite for the World Hurdle in March, but this is his first run for eight months and the trip is short of ideal. And, perhaps most important of all, he has to give 8lb to Vaniteux, stepping back up in distance after finding The New One too classy at the last Cheltenham meeting.
In different circumstances, Barry Geraghty might well have chosen to partner Beat That, but it is easy to see why he has picked Vaniteux (3.05 Cheltenham) on this occasion.
“I still think Beat That will run well, but Vaniteux is getting plenty of weight and has the fitness edge and that could make the difference,” said Geraghty. “And I can’t see the trip being an issue.”
The 2012 Champion Hurdle winner Rock On Ruby, still a force at this level, looks the main threat to Henderson’s dominance, but this is a cracking renewal with all seven runners in with a chance of sorts – and that includes the confirmed front-runner Cole Harden, who should also ensure a truly run race.
Paul Nicholls, not content just dreaming of Cheltenham Gold Cup glory with the dual King George VI Chase winner Silviniaco Conti, is also already picturing winning future editions with Ptit Zig.
Good enough to finish sixth in last season’s Champion Hurdle, Ptit Zig (1.20 Cheltenham) looked pretty special when brushing aside decent opposition to complete a chase hat-trick at Ascot a fortnight ago.
Just turned six, he has time on his side, but he is learning quickly and should further enhance his burgeoning reputation in the Festival pointer, the Grade Two Dipper Novices’ Chase, in which he should have too much speed for Champagne West and Urban Hymn.
Caid Du Berlais, the winner of the Paddy Power Gold Cup in November, is now on a retrieval mission for Nicholls after a blunder ended his challenge in a similar contest at the course last month.
A clear round should take him close, but Nigel Twiston-Davies’s novice Splash Of Ginge (1.55 Cheltenham) was still travelling easily in second place in that latter contest when paying for his one mistake at the fourth last and is worth another chance.
Cheltenham and Musselburgh are live on Channel 4 RacingReuse content