Aside from some obvious nerves, Nicky Henderson would normally be quietly confident at this time of year.
Heading into the Cheltenham Festival knowing he has some of the country’s top national hunt horses to his name. the preparations would have largely gone to plan, and he could only hope they would pay off.
Not this year. While he certainly does have some top horses, and his preparations have been as scrupulous as ever, his string is missing a big name. It will take some big wins to cheer up last season’s Champion Trainer.
Last week Henderson was forced to make the decision he was most dreading: to pull Sprinter Sacre from the Festival. This time last year, the unbeaten chaser had looked the horse of a lifetime, romping to victory in the Queen Mother Champion Chase, among many other races.
But on December 27, halfway round the Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton, Barry Geraghty felt something was not right with the champion.
Since that moment, Henderson has been doing everything in his power to nurture the top-rated jumper back to full strength in time for mid-March, whilst remaining focused on the rest of his fleet.
Despite the best efforts of everyone at Seven Barrows and Newmarket cardiologist Celia Marr, it was deemed at the end of February that the horse was not back to his best and would be rested until next season.
Whilst it is important to appreciate that no one, human or horse, has died in this situation, and one must avoid being over-dramatic, training is Henderson’s life.
To lose his best asset, with no guarantee he will ever return to his best, is a hammer blow.
Mother Nature has also wreaked havoc on Henderson’s preparations, as bad weather has resulted in racecourses around the country either cancelling racing or going ahead on heavy ground.
With around 30 heading for the Festival, many of whom were in desperate need of a last run, Henderson has had his work cut out in recent weeks finding suitable places to go.
Even before the Sprinter Sacre decision, the 63-year-old admitted he was finding his job much harder than usual.
“The weather hasn’t helped us, certainly, it’s been ridiculous,” he said.
“Whereas last year everything was going very smoothly, this year I have to say it’s not quite as good.”
“It either goes the right way or it doesn’t, and at the moment the whole season has been a bit like that.”
Despite the doom and gloom that would have accompanied the Sprinter Sacre decision, which horses could provide a much-needed light at the end of the tunnel for Henderson?
Bob’s Worth will put up a strong fight to defend the Gold Cup he won last year, of that Henderson will be sure.
The little horse gave everything as he rallied up the famous hill last March, though his main rival for this year, Silviniaco Conti, was no longer in contention, having fallen at the third last fence.
Despite winning the Lexus Chase on soft ground after Christmas, Henderson revealed Bobs Worth would benefit from dry weather.
“He prefers better ground,” he said.
“He did win last time, but with all of them it’s been a very, very, very stop-start season.”
Whilst there are hopes he will recreate that performance at Leopardstown, Henderson’s reservations are likely to be in response to his only other run this season, when he finished 40 lengths behind the winner in Haydock’s Betfair Chase. My Tent Or Yours will contest a hot Champion Hurdle under AP McCoy, who has chosen to ride him over Jezki, after being impressed with his recent performances.
Henderson remains optimistic he can come out top of what appears to be an unusually high-class field.
“It’s a very classy race,” he said.
“There’s obviously very little between us and The New One on the Kempton form [when My Tent Or Yours won by half a length in November]. And I suspect they may be the two best of the English ones.”
“But then you’ve got an absolute army coming over from Ireland, starting with Hurricane Fly.
“I think Our Conor is a very serious contender. Jezki could be, and it does obviously depend on which way [Willie Mullins] goes with Annie Power.”
In the absence of Sprinter Sacre, Henderson still has two top horses in the Queen Mother Champion Chase, in Kid Cassidy and Captain Conan. However, favourite Sire de Grugy has looked in imperious form this season, and the Gary Moore-trained eight-year-old is the one to beat.
Triolo D’Alene is a top Grand National contender, but could put in a strong performance in Thursday’s Festival Handicap, which Henderson will likely choose over his other entries in Tuesday’s longer handicap and Friday’s Gold Cup.
Long Run, who has been steered masterfully around Cheltenham in the past by Sam Waley-Cohen, will bypass the Festival this year, as Henderson has decided he will go straight for the Grand National.
Oscar Whisky is another top horse in Henderson’s Festival string, and will run in the JLT Novices Chase (over his preferred distance of two-and-a-half miles), and Grandouet may mount a revival to form in the Champion Hurdle.
With such a large squad, there are likely to be some surprising results, and dark horses could include Hunt Ball and Dawalan.
The season has been far from straightforward for the team at Seven Barrows, but Henderson will be hoping to bring back some silverware - or better still, another Gold Cup.