Henderson's finest chasing glory
Just a fortnight to go, now, and for Nicky Henderson time surely can't pass as slowly as it must have done since Christmas.
In January, his Cheltenham preparations were largely suspended by the weather; and then he went on the wagon for February. Yesterday, however, a new month introduced itself in suitably spring-like raiment — and found admirable harmony with the mood at Seven Barrows.
Having long been hunched beneath cold, heavy skies, the Lambourn Downs at last seemed to stir in the sunshine, as though recalling the sway of forgotten summer cornfields. Crows with twigs in their beaks flew busily across the mossy tiles of the historic stableyard. Nowhere, however, did the seeds of renewal take root more obviously than in the horses themselves.
As not only the most prolific Cheltenham trainer in the business, but also the one who finds repose most notoriously elusive during these final days, Henderson is unlikely to have relished the arrival of so many film crews and reporters for his Festival open day.
Any misgivings were soon redressed, however, as he paraded the best of 32 likely runners. Even Paul Nicholls will envy the latent promise in Henderson's squad.
“That's what's so nice,” Henderson said. “It's all about the younger brigade, about the future. That seems to be our strength, the novice hurdlers and novice chasers.
“We haven't really had a Gold Cup horse, over the years. But I think Punchestowns and Long Run are as good as we've had here in a very long time. Already I'd say they're the best chasers I've ever had. And, looking around the place, it feels as though the only thing getting older is me.”
Henderson has already sent out 106 winners this season, fast approaching the personal best 115 he set last year. And he is preparing to pitch Long Run and Punchestowns together in the RSA Chase. “My duty is to keep them in one piece and get them where they need to be in two years' time,” he said.
Punjabi defends the Smurfit Champion Hurdle after an impeccable rehearsal at Kempton on Saturday; his young stablemate, Zaynar, had been beaten when even shorter odds at Kelso the previous week.
“I'm glad we took Zaynar up there,” Henderson reiterated. “It proved how badly he did need a run. But I thought Punjabi was really good at Kempton — it was slick, it was smart, and when he pressed the button, it worked.”