Altior, Epatante and Santini headline Nicky Henderson's contenders for the championship races at The Festival™ presented by Magners (Tuesday, 10 March to Friday, 13 March).
Henderson is the second most successful trainer in history at The Festival with 64 winners, one behind great rival Willie Mullins, and has been the leading trainer at the meeting nine times.
Altior is aiming for a third successive victory in the £400,000 G1 Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase over two miles, a feat achieved only once before by Badsworth Boy in 1983, 1984, 1985.
Now a 10-year-old, Altior tasted his first defeat over obstacles when stepped up in trip to two miles and five furlongs in the G2 1965 Chase at Ascot in November, but bounced back with a dominant victory back at two miles in the G2 Game Spirit Chase at Newbury on 8 February.
Altior is unbeaten in four starts at The Festival, having also captured the G1 Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle in 2016 and the G1 Racing Post Arkle Novices' Chase in 2017.
Speaking from his Seven Barrows Stables in Lambourn stables this morning, Henderson said: "All is going well with Altior. He has been ticking over since Newbury and will have a couple of schools before Cheltenham. I seldom school him but I think he just enjoys it.
"If we take Newbury as Altior's first run of the season, which you have to really, it was perfect. If you were coming into the Tingle Creek or something on the back of that, you would say we are absolutely spot on.
"The disaster was the first run of the year - in the wrong place at the wrong time in the wrong ground over the wrong trip. I could not have made a worse job of it if I had tried! If it wasn't for the hype and build up around the race, I should have really been the spoilt sport and taken him out on the morning of the race. But you couldn't. It would have been a walkover and Ascot would not have been very happy with me, nor would the rest of the world.
"I paid the penalty for running him because it took him until Newbury to get over it. In fairness, I think Paul [Nicholls] says the same thing with Cyrname. It was a bruising race we had at Ascot, both having our first run of the season. Had they run before it in a prep race, I suspect both of them would have been all right. Altior was exhausted and there was no question of him running at Christmas.
"It looks a seriously good Champion Chase and should be a big battle. Altior is certainly fresh and well now, and the better ground, the better he will be. I suspect Defi Du Seuil and Chacun Pour Soi probably handle softer ground better than we do, although Altior has won on soft ground. You saw at Newbury how Altior can change gear. You have to ask the question, and once Nico (de Boinville, jockey) did, he answered very quickly."
Altior is the 2/1 favourite for the Queen Mother Champion Chase with sponsor Betway.
Nicky Henderson and Altior
Henderson's record at The Festival includes an unprecedented seven winners in the £450,000 Unibet Champion Hurdle. He is set to have five runners in the two-mile highlight this year, with G1 Christmas Hurdle heroine Epatante, the 11/4 clear favourite with Unibet, and last year's G1 JCB Triumph Hurdle victor Pentland Hills spearheading his team. Fellow G1 scorers Verdana Blue and Fusil Raffles, plus G2 Unibet International Hurdle scorer Call Me Lord, will also run.
Henderson said "All five of them are in good form. We will probably have a game in the yard, trying to name the order they all finish in. I suspect nobody will get it right and I will keep the prize!
"Pentland Hills will have a racecourse gallop. You have probably read it in various places, but we have cauterised his palate since Haydock. That is not because we have heard any noises and I doubt it will make any difference, but both times this season he has come there to win his race. I don't think he has done anything wrong really, maybe because it has been very bad ground both times, he just hasn't finished off as well as it looked like he was going to. There can be what you call silent noises, where you don't hear anything, and this feels a little bit like that. Maybe he isn't getting enough [air] at the end, so it may help, but it may not. You could excuse his run at Cheltenham - it was first time out, bad ground, he came there to win his race and he didn't quite get up the hill first time out.
"You have to say at Haydock, given he came there so easily, it was disappointing that he just got caught, but he still ran a very good race on horrible ground. He wants to switch off a bit more and I think we will drop him in more than we have done. The trouble is, is that he such a good jumper, he is taking you there the whole time.
"Then we have the two mares, Epatante and Verdana Blue. The ground is crucial to Verdana Blue. It is never going to be Good ground on the first day, but if it was Soft or Heavy, you would have to think again. She is in very good form, as is Epatante. They do quite a lot of work together actually and both seem very well. There was not much to go for with Epatante after the Christmas Hurdle. I did not feel that she needed to do anything else. She will go to Kempton for a gallop. Last year, there were four of five who did not turn up at The Festival like they should have done and I would have said with all of them it was probably due to flu vaccinations. I know it was with three because I knew we were struggling here. I think Epatante fell into the same bracket. I have read in places that she can only go on flat tracks and things like that, just because she did not run very well at Cheltenham the only time she has been there. Sure, if the same happens again this year, I will have to think again, but at the moment I have no worries. This time last year, I thought Epatante in the Dawn Run Mares' Novices' Hurdle [finished ninth as 15/8 favourite] was one of our best chances of the week. It was very disappointing, but I could name a couple more who definitely did not perform because of the flu.
"Fusil Raffles was never going to run at Wincanton [last weekend] on that ground and we have been trying to get the BHA to move the Kingwell to Kempton this weekend. I hope they might play ball, but he will only run if it is very good ground. Otherwise, I am perfectly happy to go down the racecourse gallop route. He was very disappointing in the Christmas Hurdle [pulled up], which is why I would have liked to run him again. He is not the flashiest of work horses anyway and this time last year when he won the Adonis, I did not fancy him a lot. Then he had that problem and we got him back for Punchestown [won G1 4YO Hurdle]. I did not think he was working very well then, but he still came out and done it. He can certainly come back into the reckoning.
"I felt Call Me Lord was a little flat at Sandown the other day, I must admit. We are just freshening him up. He won the International Hurdle and proved there that he can go left-handed."
It was later confirmed today by the BHA that the Kingwell Hurdle will be run at Kempton Park on Saturday, 22 February.
Nicky Henderson with his five Unibet Champion Hurdle contenders - from left to right Fusil Raffles, Epatante, Verdana Blue, Call Me Lord and Pentland Hills
Imposing eight-year-old Santini, who was second in last season's G1 RSA Insurance Novices' Chase, is set to represent the stable in the feature £625,000 G1 Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Santini has won both of his starts this term, taking the Listed Future Stars Intermediate Chase at Sandown Park in November and the G2 Paddy Power Cotswold Chase at Cheltenham on Festival Trials Day, 25 January, in which he defeated Bristol de Mai by three and a half lengths.
Henderson said: "We know Santini likes Cheltenham. His run in the RSA last year was fantastic because we'd had a terrible time with him. We had a problem with his feet and then there were the flu vaccines, which meant he missed the Reynoldstown. He had no prep and no experience, so his run was remarkable.
"At least this time, we are coming in off a good prep. I admit he was not very impressive at Sandown first time out, which is why we cauterised him.
"The Cotswold Chase was always where we were going to go after Sandown. He was very good there and I think it was a good race. I know Nige [Twiston-Davies] and Daryl [Jacob] felt Bristol de Mai was as good as they could have him. The ground was also more Bristol de Mai's ground than Santini's ground, but he still did it well. There should be lots of improvement from that.
"Santini was the complete opposite of Altior when they were young. You knew from day one that Altior was a rocket, whereas the first year Santini was hear, it was clear he was not a bumper horse, so I rang Richard [Kelvin-Hughes, owner] and Santini went down to Polly Gundry's where he hunted and ran in a point-to-point. It was just a better route into the game for him.
"He is a very enthusiastic horse and loves his work. He needs a lot of work and the more you get into him, the better he is. He should be better horse this year because he is a lovely, big, old fashioned type of chaser in the right mould. He is hardy too."
Santini and Nicky Henderson , all pictures Cheltenham Racecourse
Henderson hopes Shishkin can get Seven Barrows off to a flyer in the opening race of The Festival, the £125,000 G1 Sky Bet Supreme Novices' Hurdle over two miles.
Shishkin has won his last two starts in very good style, latterly taking the Listed Sidney Banks Novices' Hurdle at Huntingdon on 6 February.
The trainer said: "I would like to think that Shishkin is one of our best chances of the week. He is a genuine two miler. The Supreme is a nice race to win if you can because it gets the ball rolling and the pressure off a bit.
"I think Shishkin is very good and in his bumper and novice hurdle, he has looked very efficient. He has got to prove himself yet and this will be a much bigger test, but visually he has been very impressive. He does not seem to lack experience, as he races very professionally, and then you can press a button [at the finish], which makes life easier for him.
"Joe Donnelly [owner] has Shiskin and Asterion Forlonge. I was speaking to Joe before Asterion Forlonge won at Leopardstown and Joe said that Willie [Mullins, trainer] thought Asterion was a three miler but he was running him over two. Willie said the same himself on the TV afterwards. Joe is perfectly happy to run both in the Supreme. I asked Joe if he wanted to split them up, as I wanted to push Willie to two and a half, but Joe said he would be delighted to finish first and second. I said as long as it's in the right order!
"It will be the same story with some of the JP McManus horses. Obviously, Philip [Hobbs] has Sporting John and we have Chantry House, and I am sure JP has others. Chantry House is a very solid horse - he is lovely. He was very green at Cheltenham in December and then at Newbury last week he was foot perfect the whole way. He travelled like a good horse, jumped like a good horse, and went away from them like a good horse. The opposition were not that bad either.
"I am pretty sure Shishkin will not be our only runner in the Supreme. Son Of Camas and Buzz are in the Dovecote on Saturday. Glynn certainly would want two and a half miles. I want to run Allart this week - I think he is quite good."
Henderson's novice chase hopefuls are led by Champ in the £175,000 G1 RSA Insurance Novices' Chase and Mister Fisher in the £150,000 G1 Marsh Novices' Chase.
Champ fell on his latest start when set for victory in the G2 Paddy Power Broken Resolutions Already Dipper Novices' Chase at Cheltenham on New Year's Day, while Mister Fisher found the drop back to two miles no problem when landing the G2 Lightning Novices' Chase at Doncaster on 25 January.
Henderson said: "Champ will have a racecourse gallop. He has been doing lots of schooling and seems in cracking form. I would have liked another run, and we were going to go to Kelso but that was off. There was one race left for him at Chepstow, but I did not want to send him there over three miles on testing ground. He will have a school somewhere over fences before Cheltenham.
"Pym could also go for the RSA. He did not like the ground at Ascot. It was horrible and he could not get out of it. He is not the most robust horse compared to the likes of Champ or Santini who are big, strong horses. Up until Ascot, Pym had done nothing wrong and you have to put a line through it.
"I would have thought Mister Fisher will go for the Marsh Novices' Chase. I would be surprised if we didn't, but he is quick and we will definitely have a look at the Arkle, as there does not seem to be anything in England blatantly obvious for that race. You may find that the two and a half mile is the stronger race, in which case we could drop back because I would not be frightened to. It could be late decision. He does want the best ground you can get though."
Henderson also issued updates on contenders for other races at The Festival. He said: "Might Bite will hopefully go for the Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase. He had not trained with the other horses before Newbury. He had been doing his own thing, jumping all sorts of spooky things around here, and he absolutely loved it. I would like to get two practice sessions into him over the cross country course beforehand.
"Floressa is a definite for the Dawn Run Mares' Novices' Hurdle. She should have been second at Doncaster. I thought she ran a very good race and the winner [Lady Buttons] is a good mare. I think she has a great chance. Daphne Du Clos could run too, but she was not that impressive the other day and has a bit to do.
"The Cashel Man will go for the Albert Bartlett Novices' Hurdle. I think he will enjoy it and nice ground will be better to him. He did not like it much at Bangor the other day and now we have to go for an appeal to see if he can keep the race. It was a very good run before that behind Thyme Hill at Newbury.
"Champagne Platinum has to creep in to the Northern Trust Company Novices' Handicap Chase. He may not get in and in that case, he will go for the Brown Advisory and Merriebelle Stable Plate. It obviously helped him going up in trip by half a mile the other day.
"Welsh Saint and Diablo De Rouhet will go for the Pertemps Nerwork Final. Diablo De Rouhet had a run over fences after he won over hurdles at Newbury, but he was so good in that hurdle race, I did not want to run him over hurdles as he did not need to go up in the weights. Welsh Saint needs to go up four or five pounds and his win at Haydock on Saturday was just the job. I think he would have a good chance.
"Palladium and Fraser Island are my two for the Boodles Juvenile Handicap Hurdle. I don't have anything for the JCB Triumph Hurdle. I knew early on that I did not have a star among the juveniles but, then again, neither did I this time last year - then Pentland Hills and Fusil Raffles came along. That won't happen again this year I can assure you.
"I suppose Theinval and Whatswrongwithyou will go for the Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Handicap Chase. They are solid handicap chasers but somewhat exposed."