Gold Cup face-off for top training duo

Every race counts for Nicky Henderson and Paul Nicholls in the many meetings they have had this season, but the one of greatest importance will unfold in the Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup.

Possible contenders such as Cue Card and Sir Des Champs have dropped away through injury, and Dynaste has been given an alternative target, so the betting suggests it will be a straight shoot-out between Britain’s two leading stables.

Bobs Worth did not provide Henderson’s first championship since the mid 1980s single-handedly, but his victory in last year’s renewal provided a valuable contribution and unless the Crabbie’s Grand National heads to Seven Barrows – a by no means impossible but so far unachievable task for the trainer – he will depend heavily upon the gelding beating Nicholls’ Silviniaco Conti.

Henderson needs none of our sympathy heading into the Festival – he will have runners in most of the showpiece events and has viable prospects in the novices and many of the handicaps as well as My Tent Or Yours in the Stan James Champion Hurdle.

But big Cheltenham wins largely decide the title and there are at least two missing from the Henderson team in Sprinter Sacre and Simonsig, while reliable helpers like Riverside Theatre are not quite up to scratch at championship level any more.

“This season has not been a disaster – we’ve won Hennessys, Christmas Hurdles, I think we have won six Grade Ones and it usually is a good season if we do that,” said Henderson.

“Whereas, everything just rolled and rolled last season and went right, except for the Betfair Chase as usual, the horses were good, kept injury free and remained healthy. You have got to have all the luck in the world for that to happen. Things did go our way last season and it was fantastic, but you know that it does not last.

“We have got what we have, but we have plenty of horses who have good chances and across the board. Last year we went into the Festival with three favourites for championship races and odds-on ones. There is nothing here which ought to win but they can win.”

Bobs Worth has already made a little Cheltenham history as when he added the Gold Cup to his RSA Chase and Albert Bartlett titles, he was the first horse in more than 40 years to win three different events at consecutive Festivals.

Henderson has often been asked to compare Bobs Worth and Sprinter Sacre as they are such a contrast in looks and attitude. The former is a plain and unflashy horse more akin to a bank manager standing next to matinee idol, but he is just as important and unbeaten in five course starts.

He ran only twice last season and has matched that so far this term, with his trainer chalking a lifeless reappearance in the Betfair Chase down as a one-off blip before he made a grafting return to form in the Lexus over Christmas.

So his supporters should not panic about his confinement to the stables so far in 2014.

“He’s funny – he’s delicate in his own way,” said Henderson. “For a guy who is as tough as he is going into battle, he hasn’t the constitution of an ox.”

Silviniaco Conti and Bobs Worth met twice as novices, but neither performed particularly well in either the Feltham or the Reynoldstown at Ascot, and it was not until the Gold Cup that they saw each other again.

In a way, the Nicholls runner does not really have the profile to spawn his own range of scarves and merchandise, either. It is not to say he is not a seriously good chaser, but he has assumed the position at the head of the Ditcheat ranks from the retired Kauto Star and Denman, who both had huge fan clubs.

He was a winner of the 2012 Betfair and this season’s King George, wearing down Cue Card before the final fence to give Nicholls an eighth victory in the Boxing Day highlight.

The trainer, though, feels last year’s Gold Cup is the one that got away and Silviniaco Conti was certainly looking dangerous when he fell at the third-last fence. Whether he could have coped with Bobs Worth up the final hill is one of those Cheltenham imponderables, and his only way of proving it will be to triumph on Friday.

Nicholls said: “I thought he was travelling extremely well in last year’s race. I think he was going to finish first or second but who knows?”

“His stamina kicked in when he won the King George and I think he has a leading chance. He is the right age and has strengthened up. They are all dangers in the race but Bobs Worth is probably the one to beat, he’s unbeaten at Cheltenham.”

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