Nicky Henderson has endured a testing start to this National Hunt season.
2012 Champion Chase winner Finian’s Rainbow sustained a serious injury to lower spirits and the poor performances of former Seven Barrows Gold Cup winners Long Run and Bobs Worth have done little to raise them.
With a steady flow of beaten odds-on favourites sent out by the yard in the past week, many began to question the wellbeing of the yard in general. Considering this growing pressure to perform, results of last weekend’s major races delivered a strong message of defiance to those beginning to doubt whether Henderson could defend his Champion Trainer title.
TRIOLO D’ALENE was not the most obvious candidate to reinvigorate Henderson’s season in the Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup. Although this light chestnut gelding finished last season in excellent form with notable successes, including the Topham Chase at Aintree, he had paid a price for those wins as his handicap mark had been raised to 147. This was not enough to stop this progressive young horse, who travelled sweetly before emerging strongly from the pack three fences out, alongside the similarly progressive Paul Nicholls trained Rocky Creek.
An untidy leap from Triolo D’Alene at the final fence gave hope to Daryl Jacob and Rocky Creek, but the six year-old son of Epalo still had more than enough energy in reserve to rally for the win. Although there were seemingly no stand-out Gold Cup aspirants in this race, there were handicap plots aplenty.
Future winners-in-waiting such as Our Father, runner-up Rocky Creek, third-placed Theatre Guide and possible Grand National contender Merry King (fifth) were all beaten comfortably. As a result, Triolo D’Alene must merit a step-up into a major level-weights race from here. He needs to improve again to figure in the King George or Lexus Chase, but deserves the chance to continue the upward curve.
A more obvious Seven Barrow heavyweight appeared for his seasonal debut in Newcastle’s Grade 1 Fighting Fifth Hurdle. MY TENT OR YOURS divides opinions with his strong-travelling style. Some have already invested heavily ante-post on this horse’s Champion Hurdle chance, while others (myself included) have doubts about whether he has anything to offer off the bridle.
The lesson from the Fighting Fifth is that it will take a special horse to even stretch My Tent Or Yours to that point. Grumeti and gutsy mare Cockney Sparrow were certainly unable to test last season’s Supreme Novices’ Hurdle runner-up, who will now go to the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton with a favourite’s chance.
Another of last season’s most impressive novice hurdlers graduated to senior company in Newbury’s Long Distance Hurdle. At Fishers Cross moved well until a calamitous error at the second-last left him running on the spot behind clear winner CELESTIAL HALO. At Fishers Cross has a history of jumping errors, but may benefit from being reunited with AP McCoy.
Meanwhile, World Hurdle runner-up Celestial Halo clearly retains his ability an enthusiasm. The return of Big Bucks may curtail his opportunities in the three-mile hurdling division, but Paul Nicholls and owners the Stuart family can rest easy in the knowledge that they have a very able deputy in this evergreen nine-year-old.