He also knows, just like Cheltenham legends as successful as Jenny Pitman, the heartache and sleepless nights involved in getting horses in peak condition for the biggest jumps meeting of all.
While Henderson’s record has been eclipsed by Ireland’s dominant trainer, Willie Mullins, who now has 72 Festival wins to his name, Britain’s champion trainer still relishes the Anglo-Irish rivalry.
Today will set the tone for the 70-year-old’s week when the unbeaten Shishkin, last seen when winning at Doncaster, puts his unbeaten record on the line in the Sporting Life Arkle Trophy before Epatante defends her Unibet Champion Hurdle crown.
Victory for Epatante will provide Henderson with a record ninth Champion Hurdle win while Champ and Santini will represent his Seven Barrows stables in the WellChild Gold Cup.
But Altior misses tomorrow’s Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase following a chequered couple of years in the wake of pulsating victories in the 2018 and 2019 renewals.
“He coughed after exercise this morning which caused us to scope him and, as a result of what we have seen,, it would not be sensible to run him,” explained Henderson,, who was not willing to take any chances with a horse who owes nothing to him – or the sport. Retirement beckons for the 11-year-old.
Earlier, he described how the Cheltenham build-up was as fraught, if not more so, than the actual races. “The pressure bit is what we’re doing at home. It’s getting them there,” he explained.
“It’s not so much what happens on the day, the last few weeks are an uncomfortable time. There are so many things that can go wrong.
“You’ve got to get it absolutely right. There are banana skins everywhere, and that is what we’re all nervous about – things that go wrong with your big boys. That puts us under pressure.”
The unpredictable British weather has not made life easy, either. “The weather has been very variable. We’ve had as wet a winter as you can remember and a complete week of a freeze-up,” he said.
“It hasn’t been easy, and we’ve had a few difficult times with the horses themselves. There have been little patches when I haven’t been totally happy, but at the end of the day it’s coming together.”
Shishkin bids to join Henderson’s elite band of Arkle Trophy winners, which include Remittance Man, Sprinter Sacre and Altior. His task been made a little easier by the withdrawal of the Mullins-trained Energumene. However, Allmankind still presents a potent threat for the Skelton family.
“It’s amazing how this race has gone from about three or four weeks ago, when Shishkin was odds on and everybody said it was going to be boring,” he said.
“I think Allmankind was impressive again at Warwick. Now there’s a real fight, and people are seeing it as one of the big headline clashes of the week. He’s got a real battle on his hands.”
Henderson has won the Champion Hurdle three times in the last four years, but accepts Epatante has to bounce back after being beaten by Silver Streak – owned by Yorkshire Dales farmer Les Fell – at Christmas. “Obviously, she’s better than that. I think we’re back in the right place now,” he ventured.
Henderson names Sprinter Sacre’s second Champion Chase triumph in 2016, after being plagued by injuries and setbacks, as his most memorable Cheltenham triumph.
“You go back to See You Then (with three Champion Hurdle wins in the 1980s). I was wet behind the ears, it was so long ago, but I can remember it,” he said.
“I think you have to say, and a lot of people who were there on the day would say, Sprinter’s comeback in the Champion Chase was the most memorable day of my Cheltenham days... probably any day,” he reflected.
But Champ’s late surge to land the RSA Chase last year makes the trainer believe he will stay the Gold Cup trip and provide Henderson with a third win in the blue riband race.
“It looked as though he was going to finish a moderate third jumping the last. I was focusing on those up front, and all of a sudden he came back into sight and swept past them – which proves an important thing, stamina.”
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