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Champ may have finished second in the Betfair Game Spirit Chase at Newbury on Sunday afternoon but it was a comeback run that left trainer Nicky Henderson purring and looking forward to next month’s Cheltenham Gold Cup.
The JP McManus-owned Champ – named after legendary 20-times champion jockey Sir Anthony McCoy – was reappearing for the first time since last season’s dramatic Cheltenham Festival success.
‘Deadly’ jumping a big plus
Champ’s intended target had been the Denman Chase over just shy of three miles last weekend before freezing conditions forced Newbury to put their ‘Super Saturday’ card back eight days.
Henderson had a rethink following the original abandonment and decided the best course of action would be dropping Champ to an extended two miles in the Game Spirit, in light of the meeting’s proximity to the Cheltenham Festival.
It was the shortest trip Champ had encountered since his bumper days, but he coped admirably well, leading the field around seemingly in his comfort zone.
He fiddled over the final fence – the lone semblance of error in the race – and that gave Alan King’s Sceau Royal the crucial momentum to win by two-lengths.
For Henderson, it was a very pleasing afternoon, all things considered.
“He’s clearly not slow,” said a delighted Henderson. “The great thing was his jumping – it was deadly – and that will have done him the world of good.
“We boxed him over to Henrietta Knight’s the other day and he’s gone three times either way in the loose school. That (his jumping) needed ironing out and it clearly worked.”
Different proposition on track
Champ famously rallied up the Cheltenham Hill last March to foil Minella Indo and Allaho in a vintage RSA Chase success (now the Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase).
He needed every single yard of the three-mile trip to get the verdict, ensuring lots of eyebrows were raised when his trainer revealed the plan to run in the Game Spirit – often a trial for the Queen Mother Champion Chase – rather than the Denman Chase.
The veteran trainer suggests Champ isn’t a strong work horse at home in Seven Barrows but, yet again, he’s proved himself where it matters most.
He added: “He’s an exciting horse and much better on a racecourse than at home. You wouldn’t give two and sixpence for him on the grass gallop, but when he gets to the racecourse it’s like flicking a switch and he’s on the case full wallop!
“He’s got so much natural pace and he’s versatile. It was better to give him a kinder race than go three-miles, but on the evidence of the RSA last year, we know he stays.”
Gold Cup next up
The Cheltenham Gold Cup on March 19th is now the firm target for Champ. There he’s likely to face Willie Mullins’ dual winner Al Boum Photo, the ante-post favourite in his quest to complete a rate hat-trick of wins in the Blue Ribband.
Like Champ, Al Boum Photo has had a lone prep race, as has become his norm, at Tramore on New Year’s Day. The Henderson contender is now trading at 13/2 in the Gold Cup market, with only the reigning champ in front of him in the betting.
Henderson, whose most recent Gold Cup success was provided by Bob’s Worth in 2013, cannot wait to get to the Cotswolds for a crack at Al Boum Photo.
“He was on the bridle until the second-last and now we have two days short of a month until the Gold Cup,” he added. “We are now very much looking forward to Cheltenham with him.”