Richard Johnson has been assured, since Cheltenham, of being crowned champion jump jockey for the second time at Sandown’s end-of-season finale on Saturday but, for the second season in succession, the trainers’ title will go down to wire with Nicky Henderson leading Paul Nicholls by around £160,000.
Tomorrow's card is worth £455,000 but in bidding for his fourth title, Henderson runs 12 horses including his Arkle winner Altior, an odds-on shot, in the Bet365 Celebration Chase.
Nicholls, a 10-time champion whose domination has only been interrupted once – by Henderson in 2012/13 - was involved in a similar tussle 12 months ago when he came into this day with a narrow lead over Willie Mullins and he has assembled 11 runners.
Nowhere is the pair’s strength more apparent than in the bet365 Select Hurdle in which the pair train seven of the eight runners.
“It’s all been good fun,” said Henderson at Punchestown, where the Irish title race is being mirrored by Gordon Elliott and Mullins. “I’d rather be in front than behind, that’s for sure. It’s not just personal pride, it’s Seven Barrows and the owners – they’ve been amazing and so supportive.”
Back at Cheltenham’s Open meeting in November when Henderson retired Sprinter Sacre and lost Simonsig on the same afternoon, the chances of his winning a fourth title looked, frankly, remote.
“This season was always going to revolve around the young horses coming through. If I was ever thinking about retiring – which I’m not – you wouldn’t do it with the lot I’ve got at the moment. They’re young improving horses rather than old boys on the way out.
“Back at the start of the season I said the novice chasers would be the vital department; Altior, Might Bite, Top Notch and that’s what we were thinking for Buveur d’Air until Christmas and there are plenty more of them. It looked the strong department even if, by default, Buveur D’Air came out of it.”
He added: “The low was that day we retired Sprinter Sacre. We’d been so happy with him and it was the end of the most extraordinary passage. We took him to Punchestown on Tuesday and where else would a French-bred horse trained by an Englishman get such a reception? It was very tough what happened to Simonsig but you hope some of these things make you more determined.
“The high was the Champion Hurdle one-two. The tragedy was that you had to go and beat My Tent Or Yours. I know JP felt the same. We both went to see Tent before Buveur d’Air and then we did it again at Aintree.”
In Altior, Henderson brings his best novice chaser here but, potential superstar that he is, he will want to be a bit sharper than he was at Cheltenham because if Charbel was able to get him at it there, then Henry de Bromhead’s Champion Chaser Special Tiara, a winner of this race two years ago, surely will here at the end of a long season.
Doing Fine looks a worthy favourite off 10st 3lb in the Bet365 Gold Cup with Benbens a big priced each-way shot.