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Not quite Altior confidence levels, but Henderson hoping he can rule Supreme

There will be envious glances from fellow trainers in the paddock ahead of the Cheltenham Festival curtain-raiser on Tuesday, as Nicky Henderson legs up his jockeys on two of the favourites in Constitution Hill and Jonbon.

But the master of Seven Barrows will still not be as confident of claiming the spoils as when Altior headed to post for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle in 2016.

Of course, hindsight tells us Altior was a certainty, and he was sent off the 11-8 favourite, but many forget it was his first ever Grade One win.

It was his fifth in succession over hurdles, part of a winning run which began in October 2015 and would not be broken until that day at Ascot in November 2019 when Cyrname lowed his colours over two miles and five furlongs in heavy ground.

It was such a slog that neither horse was ever quite the same again, and Henderson openly admitted he regretted the decision to run.

Nicky Henderson Stable Visit – Seven Barrows
Nicky Henderson with Constitution Hill (left) and Jonbon (Tim Goode/PA)

Henderson has, of course, taken bigger ‘bankers’ to Cheltenham, with the likes of See You Then, Remittance Man, Simonsig and Sprinter Sacre all justifying short odds, but the cat was out of the bag about their ability before they won.

So while Henderson is very happy indeed with his two contenders in the Sky Bet-sponsored showpiece, and one or both may even reach the top later in their careers, he knows in his heart of hearts there will probably never be another Altior for him.

“I don’t need to work the two of them together as it would ruin the whole party if you knew the answer!” said Henderson of his Supreme duo.

“The only time we’ve ever worked a really good horse with another really good horse was when we had Simonsig and Sprinter and that was because they were the only ones who could go with each other.

“They did it for the two years they were at their peak, but nothing else could go with Sprinter and nothing else could go with Simonsig.

“We have lots of people who can go with these two. I don’t want them ripping up trees at home because they can do too much. They are very good.”

River Ceiriog was Henderson’s first Supreme winner in 1986, with Flown in 1992, plus Altior and Shishkin just two years ago adding to his record. It still seems hard to fathom that Sprinter Sacre was beaten when only third to Al Ferof in 2011.

“I think these two measure up very favourably against my other Supreme winners. I think they are very strong and you’d like to think they are in the same league as Altior and Shishkin, our two most recent winners,” said Henderson.

“It is always the best race to win because if you can get one on board early, it takes the pressure off.

“The pressure doesn’t get any easier over the years, it’s still the same game and I’ve been doing it for a long time (since 1978).”

Altior’s unbeaten run was ended at 19 and this year Henry de Bromhead’s special mare Honeysuckle can creep ever closer to emulating him should she win a second Champion Hurdle, which would be a 15th win in succession.

“Honeysuckle has been faultless and it doesn’t look like there is any chink in her armour, but we’ve all had horses who look like that. I’m not saying that some day someone will come and beat her, but all good things do come to an end,” said Henderson.

“Look at Altior, he got up to 19 but then all of a sudden things went wrong. You can never say anything is unbeatable, but I do remember thinking when Altior went to the Supreme that I really did think he was unbeatable.

“He was up against Min and all that lot were hyped up as big dangers, but I wasn’t very worried, I must admit. When he went to the Supreme, I was confident, and I don’t often get like that.

“Altior, going into that Supreme, was as confident as I’ve ever been, even taking into account the likes of Sprinter, Simonsig and back in the days of Remittance Man and See You Then.

Altior ran up a 19-race unbeaten streak
Altior ran up a 19-race unbeaten streak (Mike Egerton/PA)

“When he (Altior) went chasing – the same with Sprinter and Simonsig – it was assumed a formality that they were going to win, they were odds-on and if they didn’t win it was going to be a gloomy day. It was expected and those are horrible situations.

“It brings pressure but you’d rather have that type of pressure than not because if you’ve got those horses, you’ve got to have the pressure that comes with them. You’d rather have it than not have it.

“With Altior in the Supreme, I don’t think everyone else realised quite how good he was – but we did.

“He was probably the best work horse we’ve had. Schooling he was very special, he and Sprinter were something else, they were scary, so fast. And so was Simonsig, he was a very good horse but a very fragile one.”

Shishkin heads the Champion Chase market
Shishkin heads the Champion Chase market (David Davies/Jockey Club)

Altior went on to be a dual Champion Chase winner – and Shishkin now bids to add his first. If the Supreme is one to look forward to, then the Champion Chase is potentially on another level.

No one who was there or watched on television will forget Shishkin’s epic clash with Energumene in the Clarence House Chase at Ascot in January. And now they are set to do it again – with Chacun Pour Soi thrown in for good measure.

“That was a fantastic race. Everybody loved it bar Willie (Mullins) and myself! Sadly one of us knew we were going to go down. It was great we came out in front but there wasn’t that much in it and it looked like he had got us in trouble – he (Energumene) is a tough horse,” Henderson said.

“Willie is going to chuck Chacun Pour Soi in as well and you never want to underestimate him. I know they will say he doesn’t travel or do this. He can still be a real player.

“There was only a length between them the other day and anything can happen. Going left-handed possibly helps us. There is not much in it and a length is not much.

“Shishkin has a different style of racing to Altior and Sprinter Sacre. He hasn’t got the exuberance in his jumping of an Altior or a Sprinter Sacre in the way he doesn’t stand off miles away. You hardly notice him leaving the ground. He is just very quick from A to B.

“Willie says he doesn’t know how he will beat Shishkin, but I think he is playing games there as I know perfectly well he is looking forward to having another crack.

“There is very much room for round two. If one had won by 10 lengths you would have said it would have wrecked the Champion Chase, but it hasn’t and it has left the door wide open.”

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