High Hopes for Henderson at the Cheltenham Festival

With the countdown to the Cheltenham Festival now gathering pace, much of the talk centres upon just how many winners the Irish will manage to rack up this year. Will the mighty Willie Mullins and Co turn Prestbury Park green yet again? Probably. But, as ever, the home team won’t roll over and submit to the raiding battalions. Paul Nicholls will be looking to build upon a successful 2023 meeting, and Dan Skelton will have his eye on a handicap or two. But the man likely to put up the sternest resistance is the master of Seven Barrows: Nicky Henderson.

With 73 Cheltenham Festival wins to his name – including an impressive 19 in the four Championship level events – Henderson knows what it takes to succeed on the biggest stage of all. The 73-year-old handler may not be able to match the numbers of Mullins but holds over 60 entries across the four days and, as ever, looks strong on quality. Here, we highlight the five Henderson contenders deemed most likely to prevail by the odds compilers.

Constitution Hill – Unibet Champion Hurdle

Constitution Hill Cheltenham 2024

Update: Constitution Hill is now out of the Champion Hurdle

Where else to begin than with the shortest-priced favourite of the entire meeting? Managing only second in his sole point-to-point outing in 2021, this son of Blue Bresil has blossomed into one of the most spectacular two-mile hurdlers of the 21st Century. Eight starts over timber have yielded eight wins, including a breathtaking 22-length romp in the 2022 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and a nine-length cruise in this race last year.

Detractors will suggest that the seven-year-old hasn’t enjoyed as smooth a prep this year, as the great British weather and slight setbacks have restricted him to just one outing. However, that sole effort resulted in a nine-and-a-half-length demolition of the field in the Grade 1 Christmas Hurdle at Kempton. The admirable State Man chased him home last year and will return for another crack, but at a best price of 1/4, it will be a surprise should he, or anything else, conquer the champ.

Sir Gino – JCB Triumph Hurdle

Sir Gino Cheltenham 2024 Odds

With seven wins to his name, Henderson is already the most successful trainer in the history of the Triumph Hurdle. If we are to believe the market, he may soon find himself further clear of his nearest pursuer. Many highly touted four-year-olds feature amongst the current list of entries – most of whom have winning form in the book – but none have made quite the same impression as Sir Gino.

Going in the Yellow and Black checks of Mrs J Donnely, this son of It’s Gino landed his sole start in France before transferring to the Henderson yard in October 2023. Two starts this season have resulted in two wins – by a combined 24 lengths. The first success at Kempton was eye-catching but expected. The second was one of the most dazzling displays by a juvenile this season. James Owen’s Burdett Road had been vying for favouritism for this race prior to that Grade 2 Triumph Trial, only to find Sir Gino in a completely different league – merely needing to be shaken up for a 10-length victory. Willie Mullins has no fewer than nine in the race – headed by Kargese and Majborough – but, at a general price of 4/6, Sir Gino is the one they all have to beat.

Jonbon – Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase

Jonbon Cheltenham 2024 Champion Chase

Of the British-based challengers for the two-mile chase championship, Jonbon boasts by far the strongest claims. As a full brother to the dual Cheltenham Festival winner Douvan, this JP McManus-owned runner was bred to be good and has turned out to be just that. A Grade 1 winner over hurdles, he is yet to finish outside the first two in nine outings over fences, including a trio of wins at the highest level and an impressive success over this course and distance in the Shloer Chase. The Clarence House Chase didn’t go to plan last time out, but that can be easily forgiven, as he all but ruined his chance with a juddering jumping error.

More concerning to Jonbon supporters is the strength of the opposition – namely, the Willie Mullins-trained El Fabiolo, whom Jonbon has failed to master in two previous attempts, including in the 2023 Arkle Chase. However, there was only a neck between the two in the 2022 Top Novices’ Chase, and at around the 3/1 mark, Jonbon remains the horse most likely to expose any chinks in the favourite’s armour.

Iberico Lord – County Handicap Hurdle

Iberico Lord County Hurdle Cheltenham 2024

It’s been a long time between drinks for Henderson in the County Hurdle, with the most recent of his two wins arriving courtesy of Barna Boy in 1997. Hopes will be high that the wait may end in 2024. Under Control, Luccia, and Impose Toi all boast an attractive profile for a race such as this, but the pick of the Henderson bunch is the improving six-year-old Iberico Lord.

Also going in the Green and Gold of JP McManus, this one caught the eye when a fast finishing second to Under Control in his final start in novice company and has gone on to build on that in no uncertain terms. Beginning the season with a rating of 126, he now sits on a mark of 143 following wins in the Greatwood Handicap Hurdle and Betfair Hurdle. Such was the style of those victories that there may be more to come – particularly if the word soft enters the going description, in which case he may start shorter than the current 15/2 available.

Shishkin – Boodles Cheltenham Gold Cup

Cheltenham Gold Cup Shishkin Cheltenham 2024

Carrying the Gold Cup hopes of the Lambourn operation in 2024 is the brilliant but increasingly enigmatic Shishkin. As a winner of the 2021 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and 2022 Arkle Chase, Shishkin’s Cheltenham Festival credentials are hard to fault. On the downside, his recent efforts have run the gamut from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Brilliant in last season’s Ascot Chase, he showed he had the guts to go with his talent in the Aintree Bowl and last time out in the Denman Chase. On the downside, he clutched defeat from the jaws of victory when stumbling after the last in the King George, blew his chance with a desperate late mistake in the 2023 Ryanair, and refused to race at all in the Spa 1965 Chase. Nevertheless, he remains a supremely talented performer on his day, with odds of 11/2, and if able to put it all together, he may emerge as the horse to give reigning champ Galopin Des Champs the most to think about.