By all accounts, 2019 was a fine year for Nicky Henderson’s Pentland Hills. Three victories in the first half of the year saw the horse go from an inconsistent performer to a top contender in the space of just a few months. These included fine displays in the Maiden Hurdle at Plumpton and the Juvenile Hurdle at Aintree, with a win in the Triumph Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival sandwiched in between.
With the 2020 Cheltenham Festival now just a couple of weeks away, Henderson will be hoping that Pentland Hills has what it takes to deliver the goods once again at Prestbury Park, this time in the Champion Hurdle. He can currently be found priced at 5/1 if you fancy a bet on Cheltenham, behind the likes of Benie Des Dieux, Envoi Allen, Epatante and Honeysuckle.
Of course, the last couple of outings for Pentland Hills haven’t been as successful as last spring. A poor showing in the International Hurdle at Cheltenham in December, followed by a second-place finish in the Champion Hurdle Trial Hurdle at Haydock in January, have left the horse struggling for form somewhat.
This relative underperformance could be explained by the fact that he required a small wind operation, which trainer Henderson was hopeful would give him a better chance when the Champion Hurdle came round.
“At Cheltenham I just thought he needed the race,” Henderson said, “but in a funny way he came there again at Haydock travelling like the best horse in the race and looking as though it was all going to be very straight forward, but he didn’t finish his race as well as he should have done and got caught, albeit on bad ground, but often you find it possible that horses have problems in something like their soft palate which no one can see (or hear) even when they are scoped, so we have decided to do it.
“It might help, it might not, but it will do him no harm whatsoever so it’s worth a try and we’ll find out if it has worked when he runs in the Champion Hurdle.”
It could prove that even this small procedure is enough to get Pentland Hills back to the standard he was at 12 months ago. At the highest level, the margins are incredibly fine, and the smallest gains can make all the difference when it comes to big races like the Champion Hurdle.
There is also a sense that an operation, no matter how minor, less than a month before the Cheltenham Festival could leave Pentland Hills lacking in fitness when the event finally gets underway. You could forgive Henderson for keeping his cards close to his chest and playing down the significance of the procedure, but the timing is far from ideal with the Champion Hurdle looming large on the horizon.
We’ll only know for sure the effect this has had on Pentland Hills when the Festival gets underway on March 10th, with the Champion Hurdle the main attraction of the first day. He may not be the hot favourite, but that might just suit this horse who has proved in the past he has what it takes to win big races.