NICKY Henderson believes Punjabi is in better shape now than he was 12 months ago as he prepares to complete his Champion Hurdle preparations at Wincanton today, weather permitting.
The seven-year-old was effectively written off for last year’s Champion Hurdle having been beaten into third in the Bathwick Tyres Kingwell Hurdle, but then powered up the Cheltenham hill to take the hurdling crown.
Henderson’s charge is again a double figure price for the Festival having been beaten on both of his starts this season and the Seven Barrows handler admits the testing conditions at Wincanton, should the meeting pass a morning inspection, will not be in his favour.
Henderson, who saw his other Champion Hurdle contender Zaynar beaten at Kelso on Thursday, said: “It’s not exactly been a great week but Punjabi is straighter than he was this time last year having had a run at Haydock.
“The heavy ground will not suit him but where else do you go?
“It’ll be very annoying if Wincanton is off having had the arrangements in place for the race to be run at Ascot.
“If Wincanton is off, he’ll definitely go somewhere for a racecourse gallop before the Champion Hurdle.”
With Punjabi’s regular jockey Barry Geraghty heading to Ascot, Felix de Giles will be in the plate, but Tony Stafford, racing manager to owner Raymond Tooth, does not believe this will be a problem.
“We’ve got a switch in jockey but Felix rode the horse to finish second in the totesport Trophy a couple of years ago and is close to the horse in the yard,” said Stafford.
“This race has been the plan for a while and hopefully he runs well enough for Barry to consider riding him at Cheltenham.
“Obviously Zaynar was beaten at Kelso, but I actually think he ran into a very good horse there in Quwetwo.”
Champion trainer Paul Nicholls is set to saddle Qozak, who was sixth in a competitive handicap at Ascot at the end of last month.
“He ran well enough at Ascot last time, but I basically ran him back too quickly after he’d won at Taunton two days earlier,” said Nicholls.
“I was trying to make the most of his handicap mark and it didn’t work out but he’s in good form now and we’ll see what happens.
“It’s a bit of a shot in the dark going into a race like this, but why not have a go?”
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