Nicky Henderson expects a second blood test on Monday to be the “acid test” in Constitution Hill’s race against time to be fit for the Cheltenham Festival.

The unbeaten and defending Champion Hurdle hero worked poorly at Kempton Park on Tuesday, putting his participation at the showpiece meeting in major doubt.

A scope showed mucus in his lungs and despite slightly more positive news in the following days, results of a blood test on Thursday proved to be another blow.

In a statement issued on X on Friday, Henderson revealed the results of a second scope were more encouraging, but admits his stable star is still “unwell” with his intended return to action in the Cotswolds a little over a week away.

Henderson said: “On what was about as foul and filthy morning as you can imagine at Seven Barrows, Constitution Hill had a light exercise and was rescoped afterwards as planned. This showed the Neutrophil percentage, indicative of infection, was back to normal parameters with no mucus evident.

“This is obviously positive news but we cannot hide behind yesterday’s blood test which basically reveals that, in simple terms, our horse is ‘unwell’.

“He will have a quiet weekend and we propose, as originally planned, to take a further blood test on Monday which I believe will be the acid test. Therefore I think we might leave it until then to keep everybody updated on the situation.”

Constitution Hill was reported by Nicky Henderson to be looking “alert and bright” on Thursday morning – but until the champion hurdler is scoped again on Friday his participation at Cheltenham is no clearer.

The racing world was rocked on Tuesday, when the unbeaten seven-year-old went to Kempton for a routine pre-Cheltenham gallop but was effectively pulled up by Nico de Boinville.

It transpired after he was scoped that he had mucus in his lungs, and Henderson faces a race against time to get his stable star back to full health for a week on Tuesday.

“He can’t stay in his box, if we’ve got any pretentions of running in the Champion Hurdle, you can’t just knock it off and tuck him in bed,” Henderson told Sky Sports Racing.

“We’ve got to find the right balance between keeping him moving but not stressing him in any way at all. He is the most relaxed person you’ll ever come across and I actually think he looks quite bright.

“His coat looks bright and he’s the same as he is every day, he’s no different than he is on a normal morning because he’s just very laid back about life. But at least he’s got the brains to tell us when he’s wrong he is wrong and it is the first time he’s had to do that.

“He looks alert and bright, but he obviously wasn’t feeling well as the work was so sub-par it wasn’t true.

“The plan is to scope him again on Friday. His blood was taken this morning and it will be interesting to see what that says.

“It will be very interesting what comes out tomorrow to see what the mucus level is.

“Horses often get these problems, they are like kids in school. He hasn’t coughed at all. It’s exactly like a school, you can’t have 100 per cent of them right all of the time, it’s not possible. Normally we’d have time to get over it, it’s the timing that is wrong.

“If he was a normal horse you’d leave off him for a week and aim at something else but while there is something else to aim at, there’s only one Champion Hurdle.

“You’d have to be 100 per cent for a race like that. I’ve heard people say he’s got so much in hand it won’t matter but he hasn’t got anything in hand, we all know it’s going to be tough, Champion Hurdles are tough naturally.

“They have to put an enormous amount in and I think the thing with horses as good as him is they can put 110 per cent in, maybe a lot of horses can’t. You can’t go in half-cooked.

“Work-wise he’s done all his galloping, we’d do another piece of work next week to see where he is if everything is testing good. That would have to be him at his best.”

Nicky Henderson is not giving up hope of Constitution Hill being able to defend his Unibet Champion Hurdle crown and will have his unbeaten superstar “rescoped” again on Friday, after a below-par workout at Kempton Park on Tuesday put his participation in doubt.

As has become tradition, Henderson took several of his Festival contenders for a spin at the Sunbury circuit, including Constitution Hill, whose only start this season was in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton on Boxing Day.

Bookmakers were quick to suspend the betting markets in the wake of the work, and the Seven Barrows trainer told the PA news agency his superstar had scoped badly following it.

“Unfortunately, in a routine gallop this morning, Constitution Hill was very disappointing and it transpires, after the vet has scoped him, that there is evidence of mucus,” said Henderson.

“We’re taking a sample of it to a laboratory to analyse it, which will tell us about the significance of it and we should know more after that.

“Last week, he worked brilliantly and he was scoped 10 days ago, but these things happen, just like it did with him earlier in the year (having to miss Cheltenham on Trials day in January).

“Horses are like humans, look how many people had the awful cough around Christmas that took ages to get rid of.”

He went on: “The vets still think it could clear up in a week and all his serious work has been done already, whether he makes it (to Cheltenham) will depend on the severity of it.

“He was disappointing this morning working with Sir Gino (Triumph Hurdle favourite), who he has worked with in the past. He would normally go easily with him, but this morning he couldn’t, so Nico (de Boinville) realised all was not well and wasn’t hard on him.

“Obviously, the mucus was affecting him. He’s not coughing, he’s just got a dirty picture, as we say.

“I’m not saying definitely either way (about Cheltenham) and I’ll keep hoping. As you can imagine, it has come as a bit of a shock.”

Giving an update later on his X (formerly Twitter) account, Henderson said: “Following up on this morning’s situation with Constitution Hill, the sample from his tracheal wash has shown a small increase in the number of neutrophils which indicates a respiratory infection, which is significant but far from drastic.

“He will start a course of antibiotics immediately and we plan to rescope him on Friday in order to monitor which way this is going. He would only be having light exercise this week following this morning’s racecourse gallop.

“Both our own vet and the racecourse veterinary surgeon who scoped him feel we definitely have a chance of correcting this in time and we will be doing everything possible to do so. We have a fortnight to work him and it is possible, so we will keep everybody notified accordingly.

“He is absolutely fine within himself and we have simply got to get on top of this issue as quickly as possible.”

Having been the 1-4 favourite for the Champion Hurdle at the start of the day, by the afternoon Constitution Hill was significantly bigger at 5-4 with the sponsors, who make the Willie Mullins-trained State Man their 4-5 favourite. In their non-runner, money back betting market, Coral make State Man 4-7 and Constitution Hill 4-6.

The shock news of Constitution Hill’s disappointing workout and subsequent poor scope caused reverberations around the racing world just two weeks ahead of this year’s Cheltenham Festival.

Here, we look at some of the key questions raised by the dramatic development:

What problems arise from mucus in a horse’s trachea (windpipe)?

Mucus is continually being produced by all horses and cleared from the lungs – if it is healthy and clear. However, bacterial or fungal infections lead to excess mucus secretion and any change in colour to yellow, green or even brown makes it thicker and harder to move. This mucopurulent discharge contains a combination of mucus and pus, which can cause difficulty in breathing and reduced exercise performance.

Is this a regular occurrence?

“Horses are like humans, look how many people had the awful cough around Christmas that took ages to get rid of,” commented trainer Nicky Henderson. Constitution Hill himself has been affected by a similar setback already this season, when forced to miss the Unibet Hurdle on Cheltenham’s Trials day. On that occasion, Henderson reported back in mid-January: “A routine scope last week wasn’t entirely satisfactory and a follow up this morning shows the issue hasn’t resolved and therefore there would not be time to get him ready for next week. In the meantime, he will continue with light exercise, be rescoped in a fortnight’s time and then start his preparation for March.”

How long does it take to clear up?

Obviously, much will depend on how severe the infection is, but an immediate course of antibiotics will be administered and aid any recovery. Henderson said: “Both our own vet and the racecourse veterinary surgeon who scoped him feel we definitely have a chance of correcting this in time and we will be doing everything possible to do so. We have a fortnight to work him and it is possible, so we will keep everybody notified accordingly. He is absolutely fine within himself and we have simply got to get on top of this issue as quickly as possible.”

Just how big is Constitution Hill for Cheltenham?

Every sport needs its superstars, and in the shape of Constitution Hill the world of National Hunt racing certainly has one. He is a perfect eight from eight over hurdles and the idea of defeat when he is at his best is more or less unthinkable. Think Frankel, but over jumps.

How has the Champion Hurdle betting been affected?

Constitution Hill was as short as 1-4 to retain his crown, while Coral even made him favourite to record the biggest winning distance at this year’s Festival. However, he was eased out to as big as 6-4 at one point with Champion Hurdle sponsors Unibet, who then trimmed him back into 5-4 after a more encouraging update, with State Man their 4-5 favourite. That firm is one of only a few not now offering odds on a non-runner, no bet basis. With that concession, Constitution Hill is 4-6 at best with Coral, Ladbrokes and William Hill – and still as short as 2-5 in places. William Hill spokesperson Lee Phelps said: “We might be non-runner, money back on the race, but we believe there is significant doubt now about Constitution Hill’s participation and even if he does run there have to be concerns, so we’re prepared to take him on.”

Will any other connections now be tempted to run their horses?

Bookmakers are taking no chances with the odds of Lossiemouth, but Willie Mullins may still prefer to keep his exciting mare separate from stablemate State Man, especially as last year’s Triumph Hurdle star is such a short-priced favourite for the Mares’ Hurdle. Owner Rich Ricci said after Lossiemouth’s latest Cheltenham success on Trials day: “We’ll go for the Mares’ Hurdle I think, and I think we learned last year that these four-year-olds turning five, it is very hard to run in open company.” Gordon Elliott could consider dropping Irish Point back from the Stayers’ Hurdle, with the Cullentra handler and owners Robcour also having Teahupoo at the head of the betting for that Thursday feature.

Constitution Hill sent shockwaves through the Unibet Champion Hurdle market on Tuesday morning, with the participation of the reigning champion seemingly in doubt following a below-par workout in a pre-Cheltenham visit to Kempton Park.

As has become tradition, Nicky Henderson took several of his Festival contenders for a spin at the Sunbury circuit, including the unbeaten Constitution Hill, whose only start this season was in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton on Boxing Day.

Bookmakers were quick to suspend betting in the wake of the work, and the Seven Barrows trainer told the PA news agency his superstar had since scoped badly.

“Unfortunately, in a routine gallop this morning, Constitution Hill was very disappointing and it transpires, after the vet has scoped him, that there is evidence of mucus,” said Henderson.

“We’re taking a sample of it to a laboratory to analyse it, which will tell us about the significance of it and we should know more after that.

“Last week, he worked brilliantly and he was scoped 10 days ago, but these things happen, just like it did with him earlier in the year (having to miss Cheltenham on Trials day in January).

“Horses are like humans, look how many people had the awful cough around Christmas that took ages to get rid of.”

Nicky Henderson is predicting an uphill task for British handlers in April’s Randox Grand National, with the home team responsible for just seven of the horses currently guaranteed to make the cut for the Aintree showpiece.

Victory for Lucinda Russell’s Corach Rambler last year was the first for UK-based trainers since the Kinross handler struck with One For Arthur in 2017.

And with Irish raiders dominating both the recent roll of honour and this season’s ante-post betting, it is easy to envisage the trophy heading across to the Emerald Isle once more.

Henderson has three entries for this year’s race but only 150-rated Dusart is presently set to make the final line-up, with the Seven Barrows trio all available at odds of 100-1.

Fantastic Lady and last year’s eighth Mister Coffey are Henderson’s other two runners, but he hinted that he may not be represented in this year’s race and was clear about what he thought of the home team’s chances when asked about the current make-up.

“We’re not going to win it are we – and I’m not, because I haven’t got one in it,” he said.

“There’s nothing I can do about it and I’ve been trying to win it for 42 years, so I can tell you something about it, but that’s probably how not to win it.”

Leading Irish duo Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott are responsible for over half of the current top 40 in the National, but Henderson is not in favour of limiting the number of runners each trainer or owner can have in the race – something which the British Horseracing Authority were considering for major handicaps earlier in the season.

“That was crazy,” he added. “I wouldn’t agree with that unless they said Henderson is the only one who can have a runner!”

Henderson is currently putting the finishing touches to his Seven Barrows string ahead of the Cheltenham Festival and believes he is in the fortunate position of having not only a talented bunch of horses at his disposal, but a loyal and supportive network of owners.

“We’ve been very lucky and I have the best bunch of owners anyone can wish for,” he added.

“They are all great guys and great mates and great people.

“We have to enjoy it and that’s our game, this is an entertainment hobby sort of thing – it’s their hobby and I have to make it entertaining.”

Lump Sum confirmed Doncaster form with Fiercely Proud as Sam Thomas’ bright prospect impressed in winning the Coral Dovecote Novices’ Hurdle at Kempton.

In dominating the Grade Two, the duo paid a handsome compliment to Nicky Henderson’s Jeriko Du Reponet, who had them both behind when booking his Cheltenham ticket on Town Moor.

Lump Sum was sent off the 13-8 favourite and Sam Twiston-Davies dropped his mount out in the rear early on as Fiercely Proud was close to the pace, racing keenly for the in-form Ben Jones.

When he joined Panjari on the turn for home, Fiercely Proud looked to have things under control but Twiston-Davies had bided his time on the favourite and ran out a comfortable four-and-a-half-length winner.

Thomas said: “I’m delighted. We’re not having as many runners as we may be have done in the last season or two and as a trainer I don’t have as much confidence as I should do going into races like that – I was nervous beforehand.

“I was delighted to see the horse transfer that Doncaster form, but he’s a smashing horse and learning all the time.

Lump Sum does not hold any entries in the Grade One novice events at the Cheltenham Festival, but does have options in the County Hurdle and Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle at Prestbury Park.

Aintree is also an option later in the spring, but further down the line a trip to Ffos Las appears in order to try to fulfil owner Dai Walters’ long-held ambition of winning the Welsh Champion Hurdle.

“We left him out of the novices (at Cheltenham) because of how competitive it is,” continued Thomas.

“He’s in the handicaps and he could still be well handicapped, but that is a decision for Mr Walters and myself to have a chat about in the next week or two.

“Absolutely Aintree could be an option, but there is never any pressure from Mr Walters with any of the young horses and we’ve got a young horse to look forward to for many seasons to come.

“He’s a smashing hurdler for now and we’ll enjoy today before we think about the future. He’s up there with Good Risk At All who is a real mudlark and I just think he could keep going the way he is. He’s such a nice, straightforward one to train at home and is definitely one of the best ones yet. He’s done everything right.

“Our dream would be to try to win the Welsh Champion Hurdle and I know Mr Walters is desperate to win that, so that will be our first target next season.”

Tom Lacey’s Kempton specialist Blow Your Wad denied Paul Nicholls a fourth successive win in the Coral Pendil Novices’ Chase.

Having already won over hurdles at the Sunbury venue, Blow Your Wad then won a competitive event at the King George meeting over fences.

He disappointed behind Nicholls’ Ginny’s Destiny at Cheltenham last time out but fitted with first-time cheekpieces and back on a flat track, he beat Tahmuras by three-quarters of a length, justifying 13-8 favouritism for Stan Sheppard.

“We have run him in Grade Ones before over hurdles but he was a five-year-old taking on six-year-olds, which was probably a bit harsh on him to be fair,” said Sheppard.

“We’ve always liked him and I think he probably has to stay right-handed now because he’s won three times round here. I would say here and Sandown would be where he goes I imagine.

“He’s probably still 10lb off the top races, but with another summer he might improve again because he’s only six and there’s still plenty of room for improvement.”

Earlier on the card, Gary Moore and Caoilin Quinn teamed up to go back-to-back in the Coral Racing Club Handicap Hurdle with 9-2 shot Mark Of Gold.

Sir Gino does not fit Nicky Henderson’s typical template of a juvenile hurdler – but the giant four-year-old looks so good he has somewhat forced his trainer to go down a tried-and-tested route.

On his arrival from France, Henderson had an inkling he was something out of the ordinary, although his size and shape made connections think he would be more of a longer-term prospect.

Victory on his British debut at Kempton confirmed first impressions that he was very talented but some sloppy jumping still had Henderson thinking he might not be a JCB Triumph Hurdle type.

However, the way he disposed of previous Triumph favourite Burdett Road at Cheltenham soon meant there was only one way to go.

“He’s a lovely big horse. I think we always thought he was very good but didn’t want to get too carried away before we got to see it. Luckily, the spies hadn’t really latched on to him before Cheltenham but we thought he was pretty smart,” said Henderson.

“He’s only had two races for us and one in France, he’s a very talented horse.

“His jumping wasn’t very good at Kempton and he was babyish, he got a bit of a fright when he hit the front. He’d missed a couple on the way, was very good at a couple but he got very goofy on the run-in.

“Normally, we’d expect the French horses to do it in their sleep, as they start with them as yearlings, whereas we chuck them out in the field. The French can normally all do it (jump) blindfolded but he didn’t do it at Kempton, so we did do quite a bit between Kempton and Cheltenham.

“He beat a good horse, but was it the real Burdett Road that showed up and he wasn’t 10lb below his best? We’d have still won but we’re assuming Burdett Road ran to his previous form.”

Usually, Willie Mullins dominates the Triumph Hurdle, but while he did saddle the first four in the Spring Juvenile Hurdle at Leopardstown, Henderson was not left having sleepless nights after it.

“I think he’s very good. It will be an interesting race. What surprised me most at the ‘Willie Mullins Festival’ was the race I was watching most carefully, the juvenile, they all finished in a heap,” said Henderson.

“I was expecting something to jump out from that race but it didn’t look obvious. There’s some nice horses, don’t get me wrong, but nothing to do what Sir Gino did at Cheltenham.

“The Triumph is a tough race and this is a big, scopey horse who will jump a fence, he’s not your typical Triumph horse. Sometimes you might have decided to wait another year with him but we’ve got this far, so we may as well keep going.

“We won’t think about next year, let’s get through this year first. He’s only had two runs, one was a very moderate race at Kempton, so you’d hope he could do that, you have to judge whether Burdett Road ran to his best – he was rated over 100 on the Flat.”

Running through some of his other Festival hopefuls, Henderson said: “Marie’s Rock will run in the Mares’ and I couldn’t be happier. Obviously, Lossiemouth is in the way but she’s in great form. It’s where she’s got to go, it’s the sensible race. She was much better last time and moved much better.

“Under Control might go for the Morebattle (March 2), I want to see what the ground is like at Kelso and then when she’s won that, she’ll have to go for the bonus at Cheltenham – that will be easy!

“We turned her around in nine days last year from Cheltenham to Sandown. I don’t know if she’s well handicapped but she doesn’t need to run in a non-handicap. Something went very wrong in the Gerry Fielden, I never found out what, but she finished very strongly at Doncaster, which was encouraging.

“Jeriko Du Reponet has been in good form. I think the two-miler (Supreme) is going to be the hot one. I just need to persuade Ronnie Bartlett (owner of Ballyburn) to run his over two and a half because he promised me he would about Christmas time but they seem to have changed their minds, which is very inconvenient.

“Iberico Lord will have to think about coming out again. I wouldn’t say he’s a step ahead because he’s won two very good handicaps, he looks really well and he’d be in the County, we’ve several in there. Under Control and Impose Toi could also run in it.

“Doddiethegreat won’t get in the Coral Cup I don’t think, and it’s hurting me because it’s the race for him. It would be really sad because he’s crying out for another half a mile.

“I’ve no real novice chasers, we’ve got good novice hurdlers this year but the novice chasers are weak.

“I’ve got four for the Pertemps; Chantry House, Bold Endeavour, Walking On Air needs to finish in the first four at Chepstow on Saturday and Mill Green, who has been third in it twice.

“Shanagh Bob (Albert Bartlett) had a dirty scope and was wrong over Christmas, he schooled this morning and looks a bit sharper than before Christmas.”

Nicky Henderson is unconcerned that Jonbon is heading for his big clash with El Fabiolo in the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase on the back of a defeat.

For a horse who has won 12 of his 15 races under rules, the Seven Barrows handler also reads nothing into the fact that all three of his defeats have come at Cheltenham.

Stablemate Constitution Hill beat him in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle two years ago, while El Fabiolo saw him off in the Arkle last term. Most recently, in a performance littered with jumping errors, he was beaten in the rearranged Clarence House Chase as the 1-4 favourite.

He did begin this season with a comfortable win at Cheltenham, though, and that is why Henderson sees no reason to worry.

“He’s schooled this morning, AP (McCoy) was here to see him. He’s in good form, very good,” said Henderson.

“We’ve done nothing different (since the Clarence House). You just put it down as one mistake. You’ve got to. He schooled this morning and jumped more than he will in the Queen Mother.

“He won the Shloer, that proves he goes around Cheltenham, I’ve no worries on that front.”

With Alan King’s Edwardstone looking a reformed character having adopted front-running tactics in the Game Spirit Chase, Henderson feels the Queen Mother will be run to suit Jonbon.

He said: “They’ll go some gallop and I think that suits him. It looks as if Edwardstone has come into pace-making duties and he looked good at Newbury, but in some ways, I don’t think that is a bad thing for us. But I would have been happy to make the running.

“AP thought he was very good (Thursday morning) and would love to ride him himself – of all the horses, I know he’d love to ride him because he would suit him. AP has watched him school so many times.

“There’s one fence in our row of five he always meets on the wrong stride but he is so quick sorting his feet out. I think AP would love the challenge of him. While Constitution is straightforward, he is a bit the other way, he tests you, we call him fidgety.

“He did well really last time (to get back on terms), the thing that cost him was the last fence, not the mistake down the hill. If he’d met it on a better stride, it would have been game over, but he landed in a bit of a heap and the other horse just got away from him.”

A step up in trip had been discussed at the end of last season but he was not even entered in the Ryanair this year.

“We discussed it but never put him in the Ryanair. I would have no problem going over two and a half,” said Henderson.

“If you go back to last year, he was going to go over two and a half at Aintree and it was only because the two-mile novice chase was miles weaker that he ran in it, so we stayed at two and he winged round Aintree.

“A fortnight later, we took him to Sandown against his elders to find out and he winged round there, so we said he was a two-miler. I’d be surprised if one day he doesn’t go over further. We’ll find out between now and the end of the season, let’s see how it all goes.”

The rematch with El Fabiolo was all set for the original Clarence House at Ascot but when the race was moved to Cheltenham, Willie Mullins decided to keep his chaser at home.

“I was really looking forward to Ascot and the clash with El Fabiolo, we were in absolute tip-top shape and I was very confident for that, we were very prepared for it,” explained Henderson.

“He’s the one horse, when you’ve wound up the clock, a week was a long time for him, I couldn’t wind him up any more and it gave us a headache of a week.

“People might say what difference does a week make, but to something like him it does. With Constitution Hill, you could hold him for a month, but Jonbon is a bit different to anybody else.

“He might have had a harder race than we imagined from the betting, but until he made that mistake down the hill, everything had gone really nice.”

Aston Martini puts her unbeaten record on the line in the Weatherbys Cheltenham Festival Betting Guide Jane Seymour Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle at Sandown on Thursday.

Both Love Envoi and You Wear It Well have used the race as a stepping-stone towards Cheltenham Festival glory for the past two seasons, and another informative renewal looks to be in prospect.

Nicky Henderson’s Aston Martini was first past the post at Lingfield on Winter Millions weekend, only for the raceday stewards to deem she had caused interference to runner-up Ooh Betty. However, Aston Martini’s connections appealed the decision and were successful.

“It’s very exciting. She’s still got that unbeaten record to protect – she’s still a big work in progress, but so far so good,” said Liz Rutter, racing manager for the Henry Ponsonby syndicate.

“I think going back up in trip will probably help her as she’s won over further.

“Hopefully the ground won’t be too bad, but she did handle Lingfield and she seemed to handle that very well.

“She battled on very well there, she was headed and came back to win and really that was her first proper race, the first time she’s had to battle. She still seems progressive.

“Hopefully that form holds up as they think a lot of the Irish horse (Only By Night) in third. Obviously it will be hugely competitive and a big step up for her, but she’s an exciting one to have.”

Henderson also runs Either Or, a winner at Warwick last month.

Nigel Twiston-Davies inherited Smiling Getaway from Dan Skelton after she had run just one bumper, finishing fourth, but she has won both starts for her new yard.

Impressive at Ludlow, she made even more of an impression under a penalty at Warwick.

Assistant trainer Willy Twiston-Davies said: “She’s done absolutely nothing wrong since she came to us, she’s two from two.

“Her jumping has been fantastic, she stays very well so we’re hoping for a very good run.

“She’s earned this step up in grade, Aston Martini won OK last time but on the figures she should be bang there.

“I thought she won very well the last time and she’d taken a big step forward from her win at Ludlow to Warwick and hopefully there’s a bit more improvement to come.”

Skelton’s Cherie D’Am, Olly Murphy’s Little Miss Dante, Fergal O’Brien’s Springtime Promise and Lucy Wadham’s Jeune Belle complete the runners.

Iberico Lord came out on top for Nico de Boinville and Nicky Henderson in the Betfair Hurdle.

In a field of 21, the bay was an 11-2 chance to give Henderson a sixth victory in the race and land himself another big handicap after taking the Greatwood in November.

Under a neat ride from De Boinville, the six-year-old was always handy and was one of a handful in contention over the final flight.

He landed marginally behind 28-1 shot L’Eau Du Sud but battled all the way to the line to score by an eventual two and a quarter lengths.

Dan Skelton believes there are “no negatives” as he prepares to send Protektorat into battle against Shishkin in Saturday’s Betfair Denman Chase at Newbury.

Nicky Henderson’s Shishkin will be a warm order to open his account for the campaign, having looked the likely winner of the King George VI Chase before unseating Nico de Boinville two fences from home.

However, in Protektorat he faces a high-class and race-fit rival who Skelton is confident heads into the Grade Two contest in rude health.

He said: “He’s in great form and we were always going for this race. Shishkin has turned up and we can’t choose our opposition, but we’ll give it a good go.

“We’re very happy with our horse and there are no negatives.”

Protektorat only ran three times last season, with a brilliant victory in the Betfair Chase followed by a fourth-placed finish in the Cotswold Chase and fifth in the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

The nine-year-old disappointed when defending his Betfair Chase crown at Haydock in November, but bounced back when finishing third under a big weight at Cheltenham the following month before chasing home leading Gold Cup contender L’Homme Presse in the Fleur De Lys Chase at Lingfield three weeks ago.

With his charge having been beaten in the last two renewals of the blue riband at Cheltenham, Skelton is happy to campaign him a little more aggressively this term, adding: “He seems in great form and why not run him?

“You can sometimes get to the end of a horse’s career and wish you’d ran them a bit more, so we’re happy to give it a go.”

Henderson is similarly pleased with Shishkin’s preparation, as the former star two-miler looks to establish himself as a genuine Gold Cup contender.

“Nico rode him out on Saturday morning and schooled him Wednesday morning. He jumped five fences and there was no point in him jumping any more,” said the Seven Barrows handler.

“I do think he is in good form and he was very sharp Wednesday morning. Nico said he felt in terrific form and we’re happy on that score.

“He’s pretty versatile in terms of ground, I don’t think you would want him in very, very soft ground, but we don’t have much option. He has to go here, as there is nowhere else to go and he needs a race.”

Whether Shishkin would have held off the fast-finishing Hewick had he completed the King George course is open to question, but Henderson said: “I think he would have won. Whatever the result, it was a very good run for what was effectively his first run of the season.

“Nico, from what he told me, felt he would have won. Obviously, he didn’t see the unfolding of the race after the last like we did and the Irish horse (Hewick) came home with a right rattle down the outside.

“He should come on for that and he needs to have another run if he is to run in the Gold Cup, which we are hoping to do.

“It’s the ideal race, as Newbury is a lovely track and it’s nice and local for us.

“With Protektorat running, he will probably be guaranteed a good gallop and it will be handy just to get a lead, I suppose. He’s very happy leading and Nico was very happy to send him on in the King George, as he felt the race needed keeping honest – so he would be very happy if he did end up in front.”

Shishkin will line up with form figures of R and U, having refused to start on his seasonal reappearance at Ascot prior to his fine effort before coming to grief at Kempton on Boxing Day.

While not counting his chickens, Henderson is hopeful there will be no pre-race antics on Saturday.

He added: “He can be a character and the odd thing about him is at the beginning of the season, I suppose when he’s very fresh in that build-up period, he can be a bit of a plonker.

“When he’s stroppy, he’s stroppy, but he only really does it at the beginning and now where we are with a race under his belt, he’s no problem at all.

“I won’t say I don’t see any problems, as you always have it in the back of your mind, but he was very good at Kempton on what would be quite a tricky start for him, going away from the stables and paddock.”

Paul Nicholls has saddled a record 10 previous winners of the race, with his Gold Cup heroes See More Business (2000), Kauto Star (2007) and Denman (2008) among those on the roll of honour.

This time around, the Ditcheat maestro saddles last year’s runner-up Hitman, who has finished tailed off in each of his two starts so far this term.

“He needed the run at Cheltenham last month after his latest wind op and has come on nicely for the outing,” Nicholls told Betfair.

“I’m hopeful he can pick up some place money before another crack at the Ryanair Chase at Cheltenham.”

Kim Bailey’s Does He Know and the Anthony Honeyball-trained Sam Brown are the other hopefuls.

Nicky Henderson has admitted it is “guesswork” as to whether Shishkin will stay the Cheltenham Gold Cup trip – but that will be where he heads if successfully navigating his Betfair Denman Chase assignment at Newbury on Saturday.

The 10-year-old proved he has the capacity to stay three miles when winning the Aintree Bowl last spring, while he was in the process of running a huge race in the King George VI Chase on Boxing Day before unseating Nico de Boinville two from home.

However, the extra quarter-mile the cream of the staying division have to master in the blue riband has caught many a top chaser out down the years. And the Seven Barrows handler concedes it is a question that will only be answered on the day itself, despite feeling confident it will be within Shishkin’s compass.

Henderson said: “It’s going to be guesswork because he’s not been that far. He’s not even in the Ryanair, so I assume we think he must stay something otherwise he won’t be going anywhere.

“I would be pretty confident about that and I know it is difficult to say. I know if you get three miles round Kempton it doesn’t mean anything, but what do you do. There’s a good race at Aintree yes, but if he gets home at Newbury and he does well then you have to go (to the Gold Cup), don’t you.”

The dual Cheltenham Festival winner has spent the majority of his career campaigning over two miles, winning both the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and Arkle at that distance in the Cotswolds.

Connections explored stepping up in trip following a lacklustre display in the 2022 Tingle Creek and after roaring back to his very best in the Ascot Chase, he finished second in the Ryanair at the Festival before proving successful at Aintree when downing Ahoy Senor.

It is a move that has somewhat caught Henderson by surprise and he said: “No you didn’t really dream (of Shishkin being a Gold Cup horse), because not surprisingly, after Supremes and Arkles you think he is a two-miler.

“Then we went two and a half and two-mile-five when he won at Ascot which was his first time over a trip and it became very obvious he is a stayer.

“He ran in the Ryanair which wasn’t very good, but he came back and ran in the three-miler at Aintree which was very good and I think he proved he stayed there.

“Since then we have continued down that road and the beginning of this season was always going to be all about the King George.”

He went on: “Where things went a bit wrong was the Ascot fiasco when he didn’t want to jump off, so consequently he had to go into the King George without having his prep race, which always frightened me.

“To be fair it didn’t make a great difference and he ran a great race no matter what the result might have been.

“It was just one of those incidents, it’s not as if he did anything wrong and he jumped beautifully all the way.”

Shishkin has been partnered in all 19 starts under rules by De Boinville who he unceremoniously unshipped with the King George at his mercy on Boxing Day.

A further spill at Doncaster over the Christmas period saw the 34-year-old sidelined with a broken collarbone and after a return to the injury list following a premature comeback, Henderson hopes to have his number one back to full fitness to be aboard Shishkin once again.

He said: “We had a little comeback about 10 days ago and he wasn’t quite ready, but he has been riding out since Saturday – he came in and work on Shishkin then – and has been in every day and schooled a few times.

“He’s in good form, I just want him to have a couple of rides to be ready for Saturday, I hope.”

Nicky Henderson believes Sir Gino’s position as arguably the leading juvenile hurdler seen so far this season is undiminished after absorbing all the action from last weekend’s Dublin Racing Festival.

The master of Seven Barrows was an avid viewer of what he termed “the Willie Mullins racing festival”, with the Closutton trainer hoovering up all eight Grade One prizes on offer over Leopardstown’s two-day fixture, including the Irish Gold Cup with Galopin Des Champs.

While Ballyburn’s victory stroll in Sunday’s two-mile Grade One set alarm balls ringing for Henderson’s Supreme hope Jeriko Du Reponet, he was not so troubled by the result in the Spring Juvenile Hurdle, which saw Kargese lead home a one-two-three-four for Mullins.

Sir Gino is a general 4-5 favourite for the Triumph Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival after supplementing a British debut win with a 10-length triumph over Burdett Road on Trials day at Prestbury Park and Henderson is confident of his claims, although he is not ruling out a late surprise contender.

He said: “Galopin looked very good on Saturday – they all looked very good over at the weekend at Leopardstown. I enjoyed watching the Willie Mullins racing festival!

“Watching the opposition over the weekend, of all the novices they had that came out, there were some very impressive performances, none more so than (owner) Ronnie Bartlett’s two-miler (Ballyburn). He looked very good and I’m trying to persuade him to go two and a half (miles).

“The juveniles didn’t possibly look as strong as they might do, I was thinking ‘Willie’s going to come out with some rocket’, it doesn’t looks as if he did. The opinion seemed to be nothing happened to cause Sir Gino a great loss of sleep.

“There’s sure to be something crop up somewhere, in the Adonis or in Ireland, but at the moment, his performance did look quite smart at Cheltenham and I think he is a very smart horse, but there’s a long way to go.”

Galopin Des Champs reversed recent form with Fastorslow in defending his Irish Gold Cup title, having found that rival too sharp on the last two of their three meetings.

A Cheltenham Gold Cup defence is now the next port of call for Mullins’ stable star, with Henderson hoping Shishkin can book his Festival ticket with victory in Saturday’s Betfair Denman Chase.

However, even if all should go to plan at Newbury, Henderson is anticipating the sternest of challenges from Galopin Des Champs in the Cotswolds next month.

Of Mullins’ charge, he said: “I think he’s very good, he’s a proven Gold Cup winner so he has to be very good. I think he is a very clinical, professional horse, he just gets out there and gets the job done.

“He doesn’t strike me as a very flashy horse in his race or anything, but he’s always there isn’t he. He’s a tough horse, too.

“I thought he was very, very good and you could find little fault in what he has done. He’s the horse we all have to beat and I’m just thinking and hoping he’s not unbeatable.”

An intriguing field of four will go to post for the M1 Agency Sidney Banks Memorial Novices’ Hurdle at Huntingdon on Thursday.

Some good horses have won this Listed affair over the years – including the Nicky Henderson-trained Shishkin in 2020.

Representing Seven Barrows this year, and heading the market, is Jango Baie, winner the Formby Novices’ Hurdle at Aintree on Boxing Day.

That win in what was the Tolworth Hurdle took his record to two from two over timber, and he will once again be partnered by James Bowen.

“We’re going two-mile-three with him this time and it’s a slight step up (in trip), he was around Aintree over two last time,” said Henderson.

“I thought he was finishing that race very strongly, so I wanted to have a look at him around two and a half just to see. He’s in both the Supreme and the Baring Bingham (at the Cheltenham Festival) come March.

“The owner has both Jango Baie and Jingko Blue – and I’ll put the wrong horse in a race someday soon – and the other horse won very nicely at Sandown on Saturday.”

Two others in the field are unbeaten so far in their hurdling careers – Bugise Seagull for Charlie Longsdon and the Ben Pauling-trained Handstands.

Like Jango Baie, both are two from two and the latter was most recently seen scoring in a novice event at Newcastle.

“He’s a lovely horse who does everything you ask of him at home but no more,” said Pauling.

“I hope his jumping is sharp enough, but he’s certainly a horse that we’ve got no idea where the bottom is and we like him a lot really.

“He’ll be a fabulous chaser next year, but I think he can be a good hurdler this year as well.

“This is a lovely race, it’s cut up in numbers but the quality is there I suppose and it’ll be interesting to see where we fit amongst these and give us a steer towards where we go in the spring.”

The other contender is the Joe Tizzard-trained Diamond Ri, who confirmed the promise of his debut second when winning at Warwick last month.

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