'He's extraordinary' - Henderson thrilled with Champ ahead of Gold Cup bid
Nicky Henderson may lack a banker to "hang his hat on" heading into the Cheltenham Festival as in past years but, in Champ and Santini, he believes has his two very serious contenders for the Wellchild Gold Cup, which will bring the meeting to a climax three weeks on Friday.
Henderson admitted his "head was on the block" when deciding to run last season's RSA Chase winner Champ back over two miles in the Betfair-sponsored Game Spirit Chase but was delighted with his improved round of jumping.
Britain's most successful trainer in festival history also feels Santini –who is set to be ridden again by his Sandown partner Aidan Coleman, while stable number one Nico de Boinville will be aboard Champ – is in the right form to put up a similar performance to last year's heroic second-placed effort in the Gold Cup.
Speaking at an online open day ahead of the festival organised by Jockey Club Racecourses, Henderson said Champ's performance at Newbury had more than matched his expectations.
"He is an extraordinary horse," said Henderson. "A week before the race he worked with On The Blind Side, who has had a great season but who we didn't even bother putting in the Stayers' Hurdle. He took all day to get past him.
"But Champ on the racecourse, you wouldn't know he was the same horse. I was hoping we'd see what we saw because my head was on the chopping block for this ridiculous idea if it didn't work. It did go well and I thought his jumping at that pace was exceptional."
Describing the decision to drop Champ back in trip for his belated seasonal return as a "wacky idea," Henderson said he doesn't expect the exercise to have woken his charge up too much, despite his relative inexperience at three miles.
Recalling his memorable rally up the Cheltenham hill under Barry Geraghty as a novice last season, Henderson said: "That was an extraordinary performance because he was out of it and not going to feature. It proved one thing which is important, his stamina, because that was his first and only try over three miles.
"By running him over two miles, have I woken him up too much? I think he'll be good because we jumped out the gate fairly handy at Newbury, I think he'll drop in."
Santini was a well-beaten third behind Native River in the rearranged Cotswold Chase at Sandown and while Henderson was not blown away by the performance, he believes it may have served its purpose.
Henderson said: "The ground that day at Sandown was desperate and he threatened to creep into the race and I was satisfied.
I can't say I was thrilled but it was good from the second-last. Aidan was able to look after him and he was able to finish a good third but without getting a desperately hard race.
"We do lots of jumping with him at home, he loves it. He ran a fantastic race last year and I don't see any reason why he wouldn't come back and run just as well."
Champ is a general 6-1 second favourite behind Al Boum Photo for the Gold Cup, while Santini is a 14-1 chance.
Henderson said: "Champ was obviously more eyecatching in that he was running over the wrong trip, he travelled and he jumped but I am very happy with Santini. This is what he has been waiting for."
On Thursday Willie Mullins confirmed Irish Gold Cup hero Kemboy would be joining Al Boum Photo in the line-up at Cheltenham.
On the novice front, Henderson is wary of the challenge that has emerged from the Mullins camp to face Shishkin in the Sporting Life Arkle but believes he has two excellent candidates to take on another Irish hotpot, Envoi Allen, in the Marsh Novices' Chase on Thursday.
He said: "It was only three weeks ago Shishkin was odds-on and everyone said it was going to be boring but now we've got a real fight on with Energumene and I think Allmankind was impressive again at Warwick."
Both Fusil Raffles and Chantry House – a recent Wetherby winner just eight weeks after being treated for a back issue known as kissing spines – will head to the Marsh.
Henderson added: "I've always thought Fusil Raffles wanted two and a half miles and he's been a star this season. I've purposely given him a break as he goes well fresh.
"Chantry House was a good third in the Supreme last year and I was impressed with him at Wetherby. He stays and he jumps. The problem of course is Envoi Allen but I'm not going to lay down. In a normal year they'd both have great chances."
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