Nicky Henderson has endured a slightly slow start to the campaign by his own high standards but a big-race double at Newbury and Newcastle has put his season right back on track.
With stable star Sprinter Sacre pencilled in to make his return at Sandown this weekend, Henderson will have been heartened to see the health of his stable advertised by Triolo D’Alene, who marked himself as a possible Grand National contender with victory in the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury on Saturday.
Paddy Power offer 16-1 at this stage about his Aintree chance, which is not much shorter than the 20-1 starting price of the gelding after his gritty two-and-three-quarter-length defeat of Rocky Creek.
It was Henderson’s third success in the Hennessy and his and Barry Geraghty’s second in a row after Bobs Worth 12 months ago.
“After he won the Topham at Aintree last season we started to think about the National, and we will think about it,” said Henderson. “Barry has been begging me all year to save him for the National and we were looking at Aintree next weekend. I didn’t do what I was told, but the Hennessy is very special.”
Celestial Halo (7-2) deputised for owner Andy Stewart’s sidelined Big Buck’s in the bet365 Long Distance Hurdle and was left all alone when odds-on favourite At Fishers Cross was stopped cold by an appalling mistake at the second-last.
Trainer Paul Nicholls said: “He’s been an amazing horse, beaten a short head in a Champion Hurdle, and I thought his price was insulting given his win in France. He’ll go for the Long Walk at Ascot and I’m sure he’ll end up in the World Hurdle with Big Buck’s.”
Henderson’s Newcastle highlight came courtesy of My Tent Or Yours and Tony McCoy in the StanJames.com Fighting Fifth Hurdle. The six-year-old staked his claims as a Champion Hurdle contender with his three-length win over Cockney Sparrow, with another two and a half lengths back to the returning Grumeti.
Henderson said: “He looked good from what I saw of it, and all being well he’ll go off to the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton now.”
McCoy said: “It was a good performance, a good starting point, and I’m not surprised he did it like that. But for the life of me I can’t understand the bookmakers cutting him for the Champion Hurdle – he was by far the best horse on paper going in.”
Oscar Rock’s bubble was burst by Ballyalton (3-1) in the Straightline Construction “The French Furze” Novices’ Hurdle, with the winner set to switch to better company next time.
Winning trainer Ian Williams said: “I’m not sure if he’s a Cheltenham horse over hurdles but he certainly will be over fences. We’ll look at the Challow Hurdle (Grade One at Newbury on 27 December). He loves nice ground but he’ll handle it soft.”
McCoy and Henderson also teamed up to win the closing novices’ hurdle with new recruit Full Shift (8-13 favourite).
Hey Big Spender (5-1) defied his advancing years to win a second At The Races Rehearsal Chase for Colin Tizzard. The soon-to-be 11-year-old was beaten in a veterans’ race last time out but held off Vintage Star after putting in some fluent leaps under Brendan Powell, who said: “I know he was 10lb lower than when he last won this but that was two years ago.”
Jezki justified his connections’ decision to skip a clash with Hurricane Fly in the Morgiana Hurdle by stepping up to two and a half miles with aplomb in the Bar One Racing Hatton’s Grace Hurdle at Fairyhouse yesterday.
Sent off the 4-6 favourite, Jessica Harrington’s stable star was a second Grade One winner of the weekend for JP McManus and McCoy.