Grandouet showing that champion look
When the man who has won two of the last three Champion Hurdles speaks, it perhaps pays to attend.
And, as Nicky Henderson runs the rule over his three contenders for the Cheltenham showpiece seven weeks today, the only trick may be to listen between the lines.
Binocular, the winner two years ago, has been there, done that; Grandouet is the shortest of the trio in the ante-post betting.
But it may be that Spirit Son, the least experienced of the three, is the one that has Henderson's heart beating fastest.
The French-bred six-year-old, who carries the colours of one of his stable's longest-term patrons Michael Buckley, beat all bar Al Ferof in the Supreme Novices Hurdle last year before toying with Cue Card at Aintree. After a slight setback in the autumn, he has yet to appear this term, but this week, with a racecourse gallop scheduled, should bring that day closer.
“He did look good last season but even so I felt the Festival was perhaps just a year too soon for him,” said Henderson. “But though he did not quite get home up the hill he ran a great race anyway, and then was very impressive next time. And physically, he has progressed enormously; he seems twice the size and strength he was a year ago.
“That little hiccup he had took us back a bit and we had to stand still for a short time. But we are up to date now. He will, though, have only one run before Cheltenham.”
That is more likely to be the Contenders Hurdle at Sandown early next month than the Irish Champion Hurdle on Sunday week. Though another beaten at last year's Festival, Grandouet was one of last year's best juveniles and has made a fairly seamless transition to senior company, making amends for an early-season fall, when poised to beat seasoned campaigner Celestial Halo, with two smooth victories, including at Cheltenham last month.
“He's done very little wrong,” said Henderson. “We were concentrating in the first part of the season on easy tracks for him as there seemed to be a consensus of opinion that last year he was suited to speed tracks.
“But he's now proved himself on the undulations of Cheltenham — that was a very smooth win last month, with very slick jumping — and we're geared up to the big one.”
Grandouet's prep will be in the Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton next month. As for eight-year-old Binocular, he is what he is, an exposed performer in top senior company, and back to winning ways at the highest level in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton last month.
The other star Henderson hurdler, last year's two-mile title third Oscar Whisky, will this time have a crack at mighty Big Buck's in the three-mile World Hurdle.