Hennessy Gold Cup: Nicky has very fine Port
After a late night in Mayfair, at the Cartier Awards, Nicky Henderson could probably think of better ways to spend his morning than he did yesterday.
For a start, his vantage point down the all-weather gallop was flayed by a savagely cold wind. In summer sun, the Berkshire downland here unfurls in a golden tide; now it lay trapped, muddy and murky, under heavy grey skies. Not even this, however, was sufficient to discourage a claustrophobic inquisition.
As a gesture towards his local racecourse, Henderson had opened the gates of Seven Barrows in Lambourn to reporters and cameramen to promote the Hennessy meeting at Newbury next week. First of all, however, he had to clear them all out of the way, so that horses could be loaded on to a lorry bound for Warwick.
One, a French import named Nadiya De La Vega, would run out a really impressive winner of her first steeplechase; another, Burton Port, would be galloped in the hope of eliciting something of the sparkle he so modestly conceals at home.
Burton Port is Henderson's principal candidate for the Hennessy Gold Cup itself, on Saturday week. In six novice chases last term, he was beaten by only one horse — Weapon's Amnesty in the RSA Chase at the Cheltenham Festival — but he remains incorrigibly reticent on the gallops.
“He's just not a flashy worker,” Henderson said. “Not like Long Run or Punchestowns. Going to the Festival, it wouldn't be unfair to say he looked our third string. But he's been a revelation.”
Better like that, Henderson acknowledged, than the other way round.
“Those that do things at home, the word gets out, and everyone gets overexcited,” he lamented. “This one just goes out and does his work, and you wouldn't know he's there.”
Having picked up an injury at the Festival, Punchestowns will resume in a graduation chase at Sandown in a fortnight. But Long Run again jumped without fluency when third on his reappearance in the Paddy Power Gold Cup at Cheltenham last Saturday.
“I just think when they go that pace, over two miles five (furlongs), it takes him out of his comfort zone,” Henderson said.
“Over three miles, in the King George, I hope he'd find it easier to get into a bit of a rhythm.
“On Saturday he was long, short, long, short. You do see it happen round Cheltenham. Kauto Star, in the Gold Cup — before he fell, he was in a muddle. When that happens, you compound the felony at every fence. Before you know it, another fence is on top of you — and you haven't worked out what happened at the last one yet.”
Despite a double at Cheltenham last Friday, and yesterday's winner, the stable does not seem quite as forward as last autumn.
“They got found out on Sunday,” Henderson remarked.
“The ground had got progressively worse through the meeting, and all four of our runners on the third day got tired.”
But he sounds pleased with his champion hurdler, Binocular, who makes his reappearance at Newcastle on Hennessy day.
“He jumped five hurdles for AP (McCoy) the other morning and that told him all he needed to know,” he said.
“He was brilliant. That's the crux of it, with this horse, the schooling. It's as good as a tracheal wash, blood test and brain scan.”