Seven Barrows trainer Nicky Henderson is ready for the Cheltenham Festival
Shishkin, Altior and Champ lead a strong team of runners
SEVEN Barrows trainer Nicky Henderson is hoping for a dry week ahead of the Cheltenham Festival to give his team the best chance of success.
The iconic four-day meeting kicks off on Tuesday and Henderson, like always, is taking a competitive squad with the likes of Altior, Shishkin, Epatante, Champ and Santini all in action.
One horse who won’t be there this year is Buveur D’Air, who made his long-awaited return to action at Haydock in January.
On the decision to leave him out of the Champion Hurdle, a race he won in 2017 and 2018, Henderson said: “He’s going to wait for Aintree and it gives us a bit more time.
“We have Epatante in the Champion Hurdle and I couldn’t quite see him beating Epatante anyway, let alone the others.”
Epatante won the Champion Hurdle last year and Henderson will be targeting a second straight triumph in the race.
The Champion Hurdle is the fourth race on the opening day, but before that Henderson will try to land success in the Arkle Chase with leading contender Shishkin.
Henderson said: “He’s done nothing wrong all year, in fact he’s done nothing wrong in two years since his fall at Newbury.”
Despite being odds-on to land more success at the Festival, Henderson is aware of the challenges Shishkin will face.
“He is in good form, his work has been good and he looks great,” said Henderson. “I am happy with him and he looked like he was going to be everyone’s banker of the meeting.
“Now it looks like he’ll have a very tough race with Allmankind, who will make the running, so there is sure to be a right good pace.”
Wednesday will see the return of Altior at the Festival.
The 11-year-old missed last year’s meeting through injury, but will once again line up in the Queen Mother Champion Chase.
The Willie Mullins-trained Chacun Pour Soi is currently favourite, but Altior – who will wear cheek pieces for the race – has experience of winning this race having done so in 2018 and 2019.
Henderson said: “All has gone well and work has been good, he’ll wear cheek pieces.”
When asked about his decision not to run Altior in the Game Spirit at Newbury, Henderson said: “I thought Newbury was getting a little bit too close to Cheltenham and he sometimes takes his races really hard.
“We then came up with the idea of running Champ right back over two miles instead of three, so it’s sort of worked.
“I was happy with what happened because it did Champ the world of good, while Altior had an away day with cheek pieces on and he was very good – I was very pleased.”
Champ will line up in the WellChild Gold Cup Chase and after a positive run at Newbury last month, he is now second favourite behind Al Boum Photo – who is chasing a third straight success in the race.
Santini, meanwhile, is also expected to feature in the Gold Cup, while Henderson is putting the finishing touches on his Cheltenham preparation.
“This last week is never much fun, it’s all about making sure everyone gets there in one piece,” he said.
“We have a lot of good chances, but it will be very tough because the Irish look very strong.
“I would like a dry week – the better the ground then the better we’ll be overall – but a lot of those Irish horses might prefer softer ground.”