Nicky Henderson’s view of the Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup does not differ vastly from the bookmakers, with the trainer predicting an ultra-close fifth clash between Long Run and Kauto Star.
Last season was dominated by Henderson’s Long Run, when he crushed the rival five years his senior in both the King George and Gold Cup, but the regenerated veteran has exacted brutal revenge this winter.
Eight lengths separated the pair in the Betfair Chase at Haydock before Long Run narrowed the gap to a length and a quarter at Kempton on Boxing Day and Henderson has noted the enthusiastic vibes coming from Kauto Star’s trainer, Paul Nicholls.
While Long Run was not particularly impressive in beating stablemate Burton Port in his warm-up at Newbury less than a fortnight ago, he remains the sponsors’ 9-4 favourite over 3-1 Kauto Star.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt this is a different horse to the one we were playing with last year,” Henderson said of Kauto Star.
“I think he was going through a patch last year and people were baying for his retirement. I wish Paul had listened!
“He has even avoided going through the final fence now – he has put the whole thing together.
“At Kempton we were only beaten a couple of lengths and (Long Run) had really winged the last we might have got it down.
“Ruby (Walsh) has really put the turbo on early with Kauto this year and (Cheltenham) is a different track to do it on.
“In the Gold Cup they tend to wind up the pace and if he’s going to go on, he’s got another two and a half furlongs up the hill to go.”
Henderson added: “We were two-love up and now it’s two-all and it’s going to be a very interesting battle.
“I’ve a nasty feeling public opinion will go with the old favourite and I’ll be a very unpopular if we beat him.
“Last year was a great Gold Cup. It’s all to play for and I don’t think there’s much between them.”
One weapon Henderson has up his sleeve is the use of earplugs, which the French-bred has traditionally worn during races.
“He will have them for the parade, as we want to block that out, but they will come off in the race,” he said.
“He’s in good form. He came out of Newbury well and did his first bit of work this morning.
“He’ll do one bit with (jumping guru) Yogi Breisner next week and he won’t see a fence between now and then.”
Seven Barrows suddenly boasts another Gold Cup contender in Burton Port, who closed to just half a length behind Long Run at Newbury when in receipt of 10lb.
However, it was his first start for a year and a quarter and Henderson is wary of the ‘bounce factor’ – when horses run well on their return from a lay-off but fail to back it up the next time.
“We got the impression he had improved at home and we weren’t surprised how he ran,” the trainer said.
“He got 10lb at Newbury and he’s got to improve more than that, but I think there is improvement.
“We’ve just got to pray there’s no dreaded ‘bounce’.
“No-one has been able to explain it, but it does happen and you have to be wary about it. But he does look fantastic.”
Punters should also hold their bets for the John Smith’s Grand National on Burton Port, even if it is owner Trevor Hemmings’ favourite race.
Henderson continued: “Trevor has very much said, ‘This is a good horse – let’s win the Gold Cup, rather than leave him for Aintree.”‘