Henderson sounds in good form

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Talk can be cheap but, as the most successful current trainer at the Cheltenham Festival, Nicky Henderson’s views are usually worth listening to.   

Of his 34 winners at the meeting, four have come in the Triumph Hurdle and Henderson may well have another prospect in Soldatino. The Grade Two Adonis Juvenile Novices' Hurdle at Kempton on Saturday was supposed to be the opportunity for Mille Chief, trained by Alan King, to underline his Triumph Hurdle claims.

However, a leg injury scuppered his chance of running and Soldatino took advantage. He was conceding weight all round, for his victory in France before joining the Henderson yard, but he showed plenty of ability drawing clear after the last to win by seven lengths. At this time of year, when just about every race above the rank of seller is touted as a Festival trial, talking horses abound but with Soldatino the problem is elsewhere and he runs in earplugs to keep him calm during races.

This is not against the Rules, but although horses are allowed to wear earplugs in this country, they must not be taken out during a race, a trick that was used on the Alec Wildenstein-owned Westerner when he ran in the 2004 Gold Cup at Royal Ascot, which brought a grin from Henderson when he said: “You’re not allowed to take the earplugs out. You wait until I whip them out like Mr Wildenstein did.

“We were told to run him in them so I left them on. A lot of horses run in them in France so we’ve left them on. When we were saddling him we were saying ‘settle down boy, keep calm’ and then I thought ‘what’s the point - he can’t hear anyway’.

“I haven’t had him that long and that’s really the first time I’ve tried him. We just came here to try and find something out. He was meant to be a little bit wild – that’s why he’s got earplugs, ring bits and we thought we’ll get a small field on a good track and learn a bit about him and tell us what to do next.

“I suppose he’s told us. They’re not the greatest bunch of four-year-olds you’ve ever come across.”

Which neatly sums up this season’s juveniles but equally there does not appear to be an outstanding candidate for this year’s Smurfit Kappa Champion Hurdle to the point where, according to the markets, Dunguib could be favourite if connections decided to switch him from the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.

Punjabi, the reigning champion hurdle, has become the forgotten horse after three subsequent defeats but Henderson happy enough when Punjabi came through his final trial run successfully. After the recent defeat of 14-1 on shot Zaynar and the injury to Binocular, Henderson was well satisfied with the performance of Punjabi as he beat a moderate field by confidence-boosting 12 lengths. “He’s had a thoroughly nice time and I know it’s not everyone’s cup of tea watching these 6-1 on shots but, as you well know, they can be 14-1 on and get beat,” Henderson said.” At least he’s fit enough to win this time. And that’ll put him right – I hope.

“They were not the fastest things behind him but they’ve gone a good enough pace for the ground and he’s quickened really nicely. He’s enjoyed himself, jumped and that little bit of extra adrenaline rush that comes from racing.”

There has not been a rush of money for Punjabi or Zaynar, of whom Henderson reported: “He’s fine and he’ll be working again this week – but all I’ve heard since Kelso is how good the winner is.

“It’s not as good as it might have looked before Christmas with three of them,” he conceded. “But we’ll have two good chances. I think that puts Punjabi right slap-bang in the picture. At least he comes in off the back of a nice, comfortable victory. Last year he went in off the back of a hammering in the Kingwell and a fall at Kempton. That’s why he was forgotten about then and he’s been forgotten about again this year.”

It may be prudent to remember not to forget Henderson’s horses come the Cheltenham Festival.



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