BY rights, Champ should be having a second crack at the Cheltenham Gold Cup in March, but it is very possible he could turn up there a day earlier for the Stayers Hurdle after he won the Howden Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot on Saturday.
The race was billed as a “confidence booster” before going back chasing but it is funny how these things work out and, of course, it is not like we haven’t been here before; the most successful staying hurdler of the past two decades, Big Buck’s, only switched back to hurdles after fluffing the last and unseating his jockey in the Hennessy Gold Cup.
Two seasons ago, Champ won the RSA Chase and looked like a chaser of immense promise, but it all went wrong last season. After a delayed start, Nicky Henderson had to run him in the Game Spirit Chase over two miles at Newbury for his Gold Cup prep and, after tanking through the race and running a blinder to finish second, he went to Cheltenham as the great British hope (no hope?) against Ireland in the Gold Cup.
It was a bit like the English cricket team against Australia – he broke the first six fences and was pulled up at the seventh. Clearly something was wrong and he was diagnosed with a kissing spine, undergoing an operation for it in the summer.
Henderson had hoped to use the Long Walk to see whether his Cesarewitch winner, Buzz, got three miles over hurdles, but the gelding fractured his pelvis (he is proving a good patient by all accounts) at the end of a routine eve-of-race gallop on Friday, which gave Champ’s win some poignancy.
“It’s been a strange 48 hours,” admitted Henderson. “The point of Champ coming back in it was as a confidence booster before he went back chasing as he’d had a bad time, and the race was meant to be about whether or not Buzz got three miles.
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