Nicky Henderson not expecting repeat of Cheltenham 2012

By Cornelius LysaghtBBC horse racing correspondent
Nicky Henderson

Trainer Nicky Henderson has again lined up a formidable team for jump racing's Cheltenham Festival, but believes his are "unrepeatable".

Such was the prolific nature of Henderson's fortunes last year that not only did he clock up an unprecedented seven successes,

The magnificent seven, including star turns Sprinter Sacre, Simonsig and Bobs Worth, made the trainer the fixture's winning-most, with 46 victories since the first in 1985.

"What happened last year is unrepeatable," he insisted, "unless maybe [chief rivals] Willie Mullins or Paul [Nicholls] have seven winners.

"It happened to us once, and you can't see how it could happen again. Ok, there are seven that are capable of winning, but you know as well as I do they can't all win - can they?

"You would settle for one. Everything is gratefully received."

A single success might once have done for the stables of Henderson, and indeed Nicholls and Irish-based Mullins, the three principal trainers at the season's showpiece event.

But with expectations rising as fast as the power of their expensively-assembled strings, such a score would nowadays be deemed disappointing.

While all members of the trio hold aces aplenty for the card of 27 prestigious races, Henderson's hand looks particularly strong.

"You need an awful lot of ammo for these sorts of battles," explained the 62-year-old as we chatted at historic Seven Barrows in the Lambourn racing centre in Berkshire.

"I wouldn't say it's the best ever, but it's a good squad, with a lot of variation in it."

The variety ranges from the prolific Sprinter Sacre, red hot favourite for the Queen Mother Champion Chase to 13 possibles for the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys Hurdle.

In all, "thirty five to forty" horses will carry stable hopes, many ridden by number one jockey Barry Geraghty, and his mounts will include the undisputed top prospect.

Sprinter Sacre, runaway winner of last year's Arkle Chase, attempts to make it eight wins in a row when contesting the two-mile championship, thereby confirming his status as jump racing's shooting star.

"You'd have to say there that you'd be disappointed if he doesn't win," said Henderson.

"With him, anything but something spectacular is a disappointment to everybody, but luckily each time he's come out he's put on a show.

"He adds to the pressure as we are the custodian of this very special animal. Finding them is very hard, and enjoying them is important."

Elsewhere on a visit to the stable, I found hopes notably high that former champion hurdler Binocular, joining Grandouet in this year's big race line-up, is back to his best.

Henderson insisted that the feature, the Gold Cup, is wide open even though he has under his care two of the favourites, Bobs Worth - looking for a third Festival win - and Long Run, the 2011 Gold Cup winner.

He said: "You have to bear in mind Bobs Worth is only just coming out of the novice stage and has only won one handicap [this season].

"Ok, that was a good performance [in the Hennessy Gold Cup], but while Long Run has won a Gold Cup, we'll find out if Bobs Worth is that class.

"I don't think anything's changed with Long Run, and he's very well and we're looking forward to it."

Arkle Chase hopeful Simonsig, I was told, shows ability that means he "would not be out of place in the Champion Hurdle" while "there can't be a doubt" about Oscar Whisky's stamina for the World Hurdle.

Also, we shouldn't yet write off reigning Queen Mother Champion Chaser Finian's Rainbow after two recent defeats as the horse simply "doesn't operate" in the prevailing muddy conditions.

While 13 Henderson-trained runners could line up in the Martin Pipe Hurdle - "it means there are only 12 other slots" - a quintet is being aimed at the Grand Annual Chase, staged in memory the trainer's late father Johnny.

As to which one of French Opera, Petit Robin, Anquetta, Kid Cassidy or Tanks For That, we should follow, he replied with a smile: "I don't know, that's why I've got five."

And last year's Ryanair Chase winner Riverside Theatre, partly owned by actor Jimmy Nesbitt, is on course to defend his crown after being treated for stress-related stomach ulcers, believed responsible for a recent flop.

Indeed, so successful has the treatment been, the trainer, tipped to be champion this season, laughs that he may consider it for himself if 12 to 14 March proves hair-tearingly anxious.

I suspect it's a case of not wanting to tempt providence.

Another seven Festival winners may be too much to ask, but with so much Henderson talent being aimed at Cheltenham, another fruitful week is a fair tip.

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