Nicky Henderson was delighted to see Champ improve his Cheltenham Gold Cup credentials after finding only Royal Seal was too strong in the Betfair Game Spirit Chase in Newbury.
Having been off the track since securing a final victory in what is now the Brown Advisory Novices pursuit at the Cheltenham Festival last season, the JP McManus-owned champion was originally due to make his long-awaited return. within three miles of Betfair. Denman Chase.
However, with Newbury’s Betfair Super Saturday card pushed back eight days after the original match was frozen, Henderson made the surprise decision to instead run Champ for more than two miles in the Game Spirit, due to the proximity of the meeting with the Festival.
Ridden forward by Nico de Boinville on this shorter trip, Champ traveled enthusiastically and jumped with precision, before finally being coached by Sceau Royal (favorite 3-1) and Daryl Jacob.
“He had fun there and he’s clearly not slow,” said an elated Henderson.
“What was great was his jump – it was deadly – and it made the world feel good.
“We boxed him at Henrietta Knight’s the other day and he went back and forth three times in the free school. It (his jump) needed to be ironed out and it clearly worked.
“He’s an exciting horse and much better on a racetrack than at home. You wouldn’t give him two and six pence for him on the grass gallop, but when he gets to the racetrack it’s like you flip a switch and he’s on the suitcase!
“He’s got such a natural pace and he’s versatile. Better to give him a nicer race today than to go three miles, but from RSA’s evidence last year we know he stays. “
The bookies were clearly impressed with Champ’s performance being beaten to just two lengths, Coral reducing him to 6-1 from 8-1 for the Gold Cup on March 19, making him their second favorite behind two-time winner Al Boom Photo.
Henderson added: “He was on the bridle until the second to last and now we have two days less than a month before the Gold Cup.
“We look forward to Cheltenham with him.”