Riverside fighting to be centre stage
Trussed in a web of cables and microphones for his media open morning, the most prolific Cheltenham Festival trainer in history yesterday recognised his cue as he contemplated another three weeks of scrutiny and pressure.
"I'm wired to the moon," Nicky Henderson announced cheerfully. "But you already knew that."
As one who notoriously lives on his nerves in the run-up to the four days that define the previous 361, Henderson could identify with one of the horses who contributed to an unprecedented haul of seven wins last year.
Riverside Theatre, winner of the Ryanair Chase, has been diagnosed with ulcers since disappointing in the King George VI Chase on Boxing Day.
"I think they'll have to put me on the same treatment after it's all over," Henderson said.
Riverside Theatre is evidently responding well, and may warrant more respect than current odds of 10-1 allow.
"He'll be defending his crown but seems to have been rather forgotten about," Henderson said. "After Kempton we sent him away and I was expecting them to come up with a respiratory [problem]. But they found something completely different.
"Usually, you can tell if a horse has ulcers. But he has never looked like one. Luckily, they're treatable, and he's in great form. And now we know why he has always gone so well fresh. Ulcers are caused by stress, pressures, training."
Hence Henderson's particular empathy with Riverside Theatre, among a Festival team again likely to reach 35 or 40.
"I wouldn't say these are the worst three weeks of the year," he said. "But they are the most taxing. Every night, after schooling or working, you go round feeling those legs, taking temperatures, scopes.
"There's a million different things that can go wrong. They're very fragile creatures. Some are missing already. Some, very sadly, are no longer with us at all."
Henderson is still smarting from loss of Darlan at Doncaster earlier in the month, albeit the tragedy placed in due perspective the minor hold-ups that required Bobs Worth, Simonsig and Grandouet to miss their scheduled rehearsals.
And it was only five days later that My Tent Or Yours, with Tony McCoy wearing the same J P McManus silks as on Darlan, announced himself as a potential heir with that dazzling handicap success at Newbury.
Henderson and McManus are resisting suggestions that My Tent Or Yours should be fast-tracked to the Stan James Champion Hurdle, and will restore him to novice company for the first race of the meeting.
"It's still hard to believe Darlan won't be there as well," Henderson said. "But the irony was that one day you were wondering how in the world you could ever replace a horse like that, and the next along comes My Tent Or Yours, looking as if he wants to step straight into his shoes. I know A P [McCoy] loves him."
McManus will instead rely on the seasoned Binocular, the 2010 winner, in the Champion, where Henderson also saddles Grandouet and Khyber Kim. The parade of big guns also included Long Run, who likewise goes to the Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup as a past winner, alongside the emerging Bobs Worth. But the Seven Barrows standard is unmistakably raised by Sprinter Sacre in the Queen Mother Champion Chase.
"He is the one horse you'd be disappointed if he didn't win," Henderson admitted.
"Every time he runs, anything but something spectacular is going to disappoint everyone. Luckily, so far he has put on a show every time. But what happened for us last year is unrepeatable. I've always gone there with the motto that you settle for one winner. Ideally, you get it on the first day. But you'll take anything, apart from that dreaded blank."