Looking ahead to the 2018 Cheltenham National Hunt Festival, the meeting’s leading trainer, Nicky Henderson, discusses is detail three of his key prospects over the four day extravaganza, Altior, Buveur D’Air and Might Bite.
Henderson began by discussing Altior, an Irish-bred son of High Chaparral, the 8/11 favourite with the race sponsors for the Grade 1 Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase.
Unbeaten in 11 starts over fences and hurdles, including 2016 Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and 2017 Racing Post Arkle Novices’ Chase at The Festival, Altior missed the first half of this season after undergoing a wind operation in November. He impressed on his comeback when not hard pushed to beat Politilogue in the Grade 2 Betfair Exchange Chase at Newbury on February 10:
“Altior is very, very good after Newbury. He hasn’t done anything serious yet – he had two good strong canters today. He will work at the weekend at home – he has three bits of work to do between now and The Festival. I will school him a couple of times too – he likes his jumping and it will keep his eye in. Newbury was as a good as one could have possibly hoped for. The timing of the race was fantastic.”
His trainer went on:
“He dropped his bridle and, while the ground was plenty soft enough for him, he was just very sensible the whole way. He raced sweetly and jumped beautifully – you just couldn’t have written the script. From a weight point of view going into Newbury, he wasn’t far off his usual weight so to his credit, he held onto his condition very well after his wind operation. If you take a fit horse and go from training to zero in one move, you are stopping on one date and that was it for a month and very often they will fall to pieces on you.
“When he is cantering, he finds everything so easy. He is just actually different class. I think that is what it was at Newbury and that gets you a long way. He looked great and we could crack straight on. Nico (de Boinville) gave him a great ride at Newbury and Sam (Twiston-Davies) gave us a great lead.”
Altior (IRE) boasts an impressive race record: Starts: 15; Wins: 13; 2nd: -; 3rd: 1; Win & Place Prize Money: £394,211.
The JP McManus-owned Buveur D’Air is the 4/9 favourite with the race sponsors for a successful defence of his Grade 1 Unibet Champion Hurdle crown, as he bids to become the first back-to-back winner of the two-mile championship contest since the Dessie Hughes-trained Hardy Eustace in 2004 and 2005.
The French-bred gelded son of Crillon is unbeaten this season with three easy victories in the Grade 1 Unibet Fighting Fifth Hurdle, Grade 1 Unibet Christmas Hurdle and the Listed Contenders’ Hurdle at Sandown Park on February 3.
The horse’s sole defeat in 10 hurdle races came when third behind stable companion Altior in the 2016 Sky Bet Supreme Novices’’ Hurdle at The Festival.
Henderson, bidding to win his seventh Unibet Champion Hurdle, said of his reigning champion:
“Buveur D’Air takes an awful lot of work. He hasn’t really had a race yet – he didn’t at Sandown the other day, but he worked this morning and I would like to go to Kempton Park to work him on Saturday during racing if possible to get him pysched up. Another whole lot of horses will go to Kempton on Monday or Tuesday to work on the All-Weather – last year we took 14.
“As far as the Unibet Champion Hurdle is concerned, if all goes well, Buveur D’Air will run along with My Tent Or Yours, maybe Charlie Parcs, while the owners are very keen to run Verdana Blue if it is good ground, which she needs. Call Me Lord won’t join them.
“Buveur D’Air is better than some of my Champion Hurdlers. Binocular was a very good horse, while Punjabi was probably not the greatest Champion Hurdler. See You Then won the Champion Hurdle three times.
Henderson went on to discuss the reigning Champion Hurdler’s strength:
“Buveur D’Air’s greatest asset is his jumping – he is so quick it is frightening. He measures them so precisely – it is like hurdlers in athletics – absolute precision. He is just very good at jumping. I think he is improving – he is getting stronger. When he was third in the Supreme Hurdle to Altior at The Festival two years ago, we knew he was a good horse on the way-up.
Buveur D’Air’s race record is: Starts: 16; Wins: 13; 2nd: 1; 3rd: 1; Win & Place Prize Money: £599,462.
This son of Scorpion is generally 3/1 favourite for the highlight of The Festival, the Grade 1 Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup. He rallied to win last year’s RSA Novices’ Chase by a nose from stable companion Whisper, having veered sharply right after the final fence when 15 lengths clear.
The nine-time winner is unbeaten in two starts this season, latterly defeating Double Shuffle by a length in the Grade 1 32Red King George VI Chase at Kempton Park on St. Stephen’s Day
The trainer reported: “Might Bite has two more bits of work to do. He worked this morning, he’s in good form and his work has been excellent. His work is vastly superior to anything he did at home last year – he’s a better horse this year at home anyway.
“I’m not going to tell you he’s a better horse on the racecourse, but he is definitely a better workhorse at home. He’s been round Cheltenham in the RSA Chase last year and the fact that he was able to essentially come to a complete standstill in the RSA and then get going again, means he must stay pretty well as that is an extraordinary thing to do. He idled in the King George, but he definitely stayed and he did go very quick that day. He took Bristol De Mai on early on and he then galloped away from them – his pace is phenomenal.”
Discussing his horse staying the 3 miles 2 furlongs Gold Cup distance, Henderson stated:
“He has been three miles round Cheltenham and he has got up the hill. I see no reason why he won’t get it. It’s not much further (two extra furlongs) and he is another year stronger. The better the ground, the better he will be. The New Course is the stiffer track. It is further to come to the paddock, I know that. I shall be further away than I was last year, so it is not me that he is after or the Guinness tent either!”
Might Bite’s race record is as follows: Starts: 14; Wins: 9; 2nd: 1; 3rd: 1; Win & Place Prize Money: £348,207.