The Cheltenham Festival is on the horizon, and of course everyone will have their sights set on the showpiece race, the Gold Cup. Willie Mullins-trained Al Boum Photo is gunning for a third successive triumph in the illustrious race, which would see his name etched into the history books alongside the likes of the legendary Arkle and fan-favourite Best Mate.
However, as always it will be an incredibly talented field of horses and every entry will be doing all they can to deny Al Boum Photo of an historic third victory, even if the odds aren’t in their favour.
One of the horses many punters will fancy to end Al Boum Photo’s winning streak is Champ. Following the Betfair Hurdle card at Newbury at the end of last month, the Nicky Henderson-trained horse moved up to second favourite for the Gold Cup, and we’re sure Mullins will be feeling the heat ahead of the showpiece.
After all, Champ showed us his quality at last year’s Festival. The nine-year-old, who is named after legendary jockey Sir AP McCoy, was 4/1 to win the RSA Novices’ Chase, behind A Plus Tard and Minella Indo in the betting. However, despite being over eight lengths behind the favourites at the last, Champ and Barry Geraghty put on a monumental comeback to win the Grade 1 race, edging the market leaders over the line by a length.
For Henderson, the build-up to the Prestbury Park meeting hasn’t exactly gone to plan. But following Champ’s run in the Game Spirit, the 70-year-old probably feels like he made the right decisions ahead of the Cheltenham Festival.
The Betfair card at Newbury was postponed by a week due to a frozen track and many were shocked by Henderson’s decision to pull Altior’s entry from the Game Spirit, rerouting the two-time Queen Mother Champion Chase victor directly for Prestbury Park, whilst pulling Champ from the Denman Chase to replace Altior in the race.
The decision was made due to the proximity of the Newbury meeting and the Cheltenham Festival, and it’s understandable given that this could be Altior’s last chance to land a third Queen Mother. The 11-year-old missed out on the day two showpiece last year through injury, and with his age, it’s no surprise really that Henderson didn’t want to take any risks so close to the Festival.
As for Champ in the Game Spirit, the racing results didn’t go in his favour, but it was more a case of testing the waters than going for the win. It was the nine-year-old’s first outing since winning the RSA last year, and it was an impressive ride from Nico De Boinville, who was ultimately beaten by the race’s favourite Sceau Royal.
Still, Henderson was rightfully delighted with Champ’s run, and believes it will have ‘done him the world of good’ ahead of another outing at Cheltenham.
“He’s enjoyed himself there and he’s clearly not slow,” said a chuffed Henderson. “The great thing was his jumping – it was deadly – and that will have done him the world of good. 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 today than go three miles, but on the evidence of the RSA last year, we know he stays.”
Despite Champ’s name also doing the round for the Paddy Power Stayers’ Hurdle in the Cheltenham Thursday tips, punters, pundits and the bookies alike now fancy his chances of winning the Gold Cup, and Henderson will be hoping that the nine-year-old can land his first victory in the showpiece since Bobs Worth in 2013.
Last year, Henderson and de Boinville came so close yet so far as Santini pushed Al Boum Photo all the way to line only to be beaten by the neck of Al Boum Photo, and both trainer and jockey will be brimming with confidence after Champ’s recent run.
“He was on the bridle until the second-last and now we have two days short of a month until the Gold Cup,” Henderson added. “We are now very much looking forward to Cheltenham with him.”