NICKY Henderson is the first to accept that there are no guarantees in National Hunt racing; his quest to become champion trainer for the first time in 25 years was only foiled when Neptune Collonges won the Grand National in the final stride to enable Paul Nicholls to retain the title.
Buoyed by a record-breaking seven victories at this year’s Cheltenham Festival, and many Nicholls-trained superstars like Kauto Star, Master Minded and Neptune Collonges being retired, it was accepted that Eton-educated Henderson would become No 1 this season for the first time since 1986-87.
If only. This season has already seen the likes of Al Ferof and Silviniaco Conti surpass expectations for Nicholls while several high-profile Henderson horses – 2011 Gold Cup winner Long Run and Champion Chase victor Finian’s Rainbow included – have failed to fire first time out as the Lambourn stable has struggled for form. Now rain-saturated ground, and several abandonments, are disrupting the yard’s plans.
It explains his exasperated albeit phlegmatic mood yesterday as he explained possible options after finding himself more than £300,000 behind Nicholls in the trainers’ title race which is determined on prize money rather than volume of winners.
First up is Saturday’s Hennessy Gold Cup at his local Newbury track where RSA Chase winner Bobs Worth, a leading contender for next year’s Cheltenham Gold Cup, is set to make his seasonal reappearance.
“We’re nervous about the ground,” he said. “I’d have to say there’s an element of doubt. The gallops here are as soft as I’ve ever seen.”
Two-mile chaser Sprinter Sacre, the Arkle winner, is still on course for a mouth-watering clash with the Nicholls-trained Sanctuaire in Sandown’s Tingle Creek Chase on Saturday week after missing his anticipated comeback at Cheltenham 10 days ago because of heavy going. Again, Henderson wants the rain clouds to relent.
That said, Henderson could have three runners in this year’s William Hill King George VI Chase with Long Run, Riverside Theatre and Finian’s Rainbow all in contention for Boxing Day.
Long Run and Riverside Theatre filled the first two positions in the famous Kempton chase two years ago, while the former went on to finish an honourable second to Kauto Star last December.
It was a longer road back for Riverside Theatre who then endured a long injury lay-off before landing the Ryanair Chase at Cheltenham – one of the trainer’s ‘magnificent seven’.
“Riverside Theatre is very good, and the plan was not to run before Kempton,” said the trainer, who reported Long Run none the worse for his exploits behind Silviniaco Conti in last Saturday’s Betfair Chase.
As for Finian’s Rainbow trailing home in last place in the Amlin Chase at Ascot, Henderson said: “He was very disappointing. He was the one of my runners I didn’t think would be beaten but it went pear-shaped.
“We looked at his scope and his blood but it hasn’t shown anything. Barry (Geraghty) is adamant it was just the ground. He might run, as where else is there to go?”
On the hurdling front, 2010 Champion Hurdle winner Binocular is on course for Kempton’s Christmas Hurdle – part of the King George undercard – while Darlan will miss this weekend’s Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle if the ground is heavy.
Understandably, Henderson is biding his time before unleashing top hurdler Simonsig over fences. “He’s not quite ready for this weekend, we’ll see him in about a fortnight,” he said.
Meanwhile, Captain Conan, who impressed on his recent debut over fences at Cheltenham, will take his next step up the ladder in the Henry VIII Novices’ Chase at Sandown on Saturday week.
A belated reappearance from injury-hit 2009 Champion Hurdler Punjabi, also expected to go chasing, should come soon. “I had him entered this week but I wasn’t going to risk him on this ground,” the trainer said.
With his stable stars being aimed at jump racing’s more illustrious contests, Henderson will not be unduly perturbed by Southwell being forced to abandon its remaining National Hunt and Flat meetings this year.
Floods have damaged buildings at the Nottinghamshire venue which will transfer its all-weather meetings – well supported by many Yorkshire Flat trainers – to Lingfield or Wolverhampton.
n Big Buck’s will face a maximum of seven rivals as he seeks to win the Sportingbet Long Distance Hurdle for the fourth year running at Newbury on Saturday.
Paul Nicholls’s crack performer is unbeaten in 17 races since he returned to hurdles after unseating Sam Thomas in the Hennessy at the Berkshire track in 2008.
This Grade Two contest has been the starting point every season since and the nine-year-old is set to make his seasonal reappearance there once again.
The race was reopened due to insufficient entries and his likely opposition includes his stablemate Five Dream.
Alan King has put in Smad Place, while Tom George’s Crack Away Jack and the Nick Williams-trained Reve De Sivola are useful performers.
The list is completed by Fox Appeal, Maggio and Possol.
France Galop stewards will meet next Tuesday to decide what action to take against Frankie Dettori after the former champion jockey tested positive for a banned substance.