A Cheltenham Festival of two halves for trainer Nicky Henderson

Having saddled four winners by the end of day two of the 2020 Cheltenham Festival, Nicky Henderson must have been fancying his chances of landing the top trainer title. Jockey Nico de Boinville got Henderson’s Festival off to the best possible start by winning with Shishkin, before Barry Geraghty brought the trainer three further wins on Epatante, Champ and Dame De Compagnie.

Unfortunately for Henderson, that was to be his lot for Cheltenham this year, as rival trainers Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott stole the show with seven winners apiece. But that’s not to say it was an unsuccessful year for Henderson. Four wins at Cheltenham is a fine return for any trainer, but he’ll perhaps be disappointed that he couldn’t make a greater impact at the business end of the meeting.

Let’s focus on the positives first. Shishkin’s performance in the opening race of the Festival, overcoming the likes of Abacadabras, trained by Elliott, favourite Asterion Forlonge, trained by Mullins, and stablemate Chantry House. De Boinville proved his qualities in the saddle to get the win, and is a jockey getting better and better as the weeks go by.

Henderson’s other three winners were a part of Geraghty’s superb Festival. First was Epatante in the Champion Hurdle, the showpiece race of day one. The six-year-old was the 2/1 favourite in the online horse betting heading into the race, and Geraghty produced a fine display to hold off the challenges of Sharjah and Darver Star to land a memorable Grade One win for Henderson.

Next was Champ in the Novices’ Chase on Ladies Day, and what proved to be one of the most exciting races of the entire Festival. Minella Indo and Allaho were neck and neck as they charged towards the finish line, before seemingly out of nowhere Champ came storming through the middle to finish first. It was a performance that demonstrated Geraghty’s class in the saddle, but also Henderson’s qualities as a trainer, that his horse was able to find that second gear at the last.

Henderson’s fourth and final winner of the Festival this year came in the very next race on Ladies Day, as 5/1 favourite Dame De Compagnie saw off the chasing pack in the Handicap Hurdle. It was another win in which an Elliott horse was consigned to second place, although he would ultimately have the last laugh with three more winners than Henderson in the Festival as a whole.

The latter will look back at the second two days of Cheltenham as a series of missed opportunities. On day three the likes of Welsh Saint, Floressa, and Champagne Platinum failed to live up to the billing. Gold Cup Day brought the chance for Henderson’s horses to make amends, but once again luck just wasn’t on his side, as another series of disappointments came his way.

The Gold Cup itself almost brought about a moment of glory for Henderson. As the race bounded towards a thrilling conclusion, the Henderson-trained Santini was pushing defending champion Al Boum Photo all the way, but de Boinville and his horse just couldn’t outstrip Mullins’ prized eight-year-old.

Henderson still has plenty of positives to take from his horse’s performances at the Festival, particularly the three winners ridden by Geraghty. But the nature of these elite trainers is that they won’t be satisfied with consolation prizes or nearly moments. You can bet that Henderson will already be desperate to go one better at next year’s Cheltenham Festival and claim that top trainer accolade for himself.

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