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Henderson v Nicholls: how the championship will be won

Nicky Henderson and Paul Nicholls: fight for the title looks like going to the wire
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As was the case 12 months ago, Paul Nicholls faces a battle to retain his trainers' title. This year the opponent is different, but also familiar: Nicky Henderson, who in 2013 became the only trainer to break Nicholls' run since he first took the championship from Martin Pipe in 2006 and has been runner-up six of the ten times Nicholls has been champion.

There is one other, more important difference to last year. Then, Nicholls came out of Cheltenham with a lead of £120,000 over Mullins. He now finds himself almost £150,000 behind Henderson.

Nicholls' winning margin last season was around £100,000. Mullins threw everything at Aintree, Ayr and Sandown but only closed the gap by £20,000 on Nicholls, whose approach could reasonably be described as guerrilla warfare, sniping dozens of modest targets before delivering a superb coup de grace with Vicente in the Scottish National.

Nicholls' tactics are likely to be similar this season, while he will be heartened by Henderson not quite boasting the fearsome firepower of Mullins, who won four Grade 1s at Aintree last April including the Aintree Hurdle.

A good indicator of how seriously Henderson is taking the title might be drawn from how he campaigns Arkle winner Altior. The Maghull Novices' Chase is the route that Henderson would almost certainly take in normal circumstances, but first place in the Melling Chase a day earlier is worth £56,000 more. 

And with Un De Sceaux more likely to take Douvan's place at Punchestown, an educated guess suggests the main players in the Melling Chase will be the likes of God's Own and Fox Norton, the last-named already having been left in Altior's wake this season.

Alternatively, Henderson could run Altior in the novice race at Aintree and keep him up his sleeve for a potential run in the Celebration Chase, worth £71,000 to the winner, on the final day of the season at Sandown.

Altior storms over the final fence of the Racing Post Arkle Trophy, en route to giving Nicky Henderson one of his three festival wins
Meanwhile, the key for Nicholls will again be a big win. Without Vicente's £120,000 prize at Ayr last April, he would have been defeated and the Grand National proved a knockout blow in the last battle between Nicholls and Henderson in 2012. 

Nicholls sent out six in last year's National and has seven entries this year. His main chances lie with Gold Cup fifth Saphir Du Rheu and Vicente, whose main target this season has never been much of a secret.

There is, technically, a third man in this fight, but Colin Tizzard's chance might have gone in Friday's Gold Cup. With a little less than £500,000 to make up on Henderson and no other race worth more than £123,000 to the winner, the only realistic chance Tizzard has of snatching the title is if he takes the £561,000 first prize in the Grand National.

Given that his only entrant is Alary, a horse whose three-run career in Britain so far can only be described as underwhelming, it looks as though the game is up. 

Still, even the harshest critic could not call Tizzard's season, which has included saddling the winners of the Betfair Chase, Hennessy, King George, Welsh National and Ascot Chase, anything other than a roaring success. That he's been effectively left behind by the first two after Cheltenham reflects exceptionally well on their efforts.

Whoever comes up short between Nicholls and Henderson will have had an excellent season, but both men, each a multiple runner-up as well as champion in their time, know that there are no prizes awarded for second.


The big prizes still up for grabs

Aintree
Aintree Bowl first prize £84,195
Aintree Hurdle £112,260
Melling Chase £112,260
Liverpool Hurdle £84,195
Grand National £561,300

Ayr
Scottish Champion Hurdle £59,797
Scottish Grand National £122,442

Sandown
Celebration Chase £71,187
bet365 Gold Cup £84,405


The horses that may decide the title

Altior
Henderson's star did not shine at his very brightest in the Arkle, but he looks an irresistible force around two miles with Douvan out for the season.

Buveur D'Air
Henderson was set to send Buveur D'Air up in trip over fences before he was rerouted to the Champion Hurdle, so the Aintree Hurdle looks an obvious next stop.

Vicente
Nicholls has managed to convince Sir Trevor Hemmings that Vicente has what it takes to win the Grand National. If the horse jumps soundly, he might well be right. Saphir Du Rheu gives Nicholls another realistic spin for the jackpot.

Alary
If the party is to be pooped, it will almost certainly be due to Alary delivering some delayed gratification following his hyped-up arrival from France in the Grand National, though the vibes don't say much for him taking his chance.

L'Ami Serge
The Scottish Champion Hurdle could become a key battleground. As well as the six-figure purse, it is a race into which both Nicholls and Henderson could send the cavalry. L'Ami Serge is merely the most obvious contender following his narrow second in the County Hurdle.

Just A Par
Ensured the title was staying in Britain by finishing a short-head second in last year's Sandown Park Gold Cup and, now lower in the weights, looks set to be aimed at Aintree and/or Sandown in search of another spring windfall.


Title odds (Paddy Power)

Nicky Henderson 4-7

Paul Nicholls 5-4

A good indicator of how seriously Henderson is taking the title might be drawn from how he campaigns Arkle winner Altior
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