“The Gold Cup course at Cheltenham will play into his hands,” said Nicky Henderson of Santini after a winning, though, uninspiring display in the Future Stars Intermediate Chase at Sandown back in November. It was a win, but that was all it was really, as Henderson quickly realised that the seven-year-old lacked the necessary qualities to compete at the King George VI Chase the following month.

Now, with the Cheltenham Festival looming large on the horizon, Henderson, Santini and jockey Nico de Boinville are gearing up for the Gold Cup – to see if Santini truly is suited to the hallowed turf of Prestbury Park. He has lost out at the Festival in his previous two appearances, finishing third in the Spa Novices’ Hurdle in 2018, and second in the Novices’ Chase last year. 

The Gold Cup is a new challenge, but one that the more mature, developed Santini may be ready for. A fine win in the Cotswold Chase at Cheltenham at the end of January means that Santini is back on punters’ lips as a real possibility for Gold Cup contention, and the latest Gold Cup betting odds reflect this, with Santini second-favourite behind last year’s winner Al Boum Photo.

There’s only so much you can draw from one victory, but Henderson’s confidence in Santini is enough to convince many punters that he has what it takes. A trainer with Henderson’s record of success can usually be trusted with this kind of judgement, and the 69-year-old was optimistic that Santini is building up to a memorable display at Cheltenham.

“This horse absolutely lives and thrives on work,” he said. “The more you can get into him the better he becomes. He has always been the same. When you can’t train him he goes the other way again. You have got to fire work at him. The more you do the better he gets. There is more to come.”

Henderson described the Cotswold Chase win as “200 per cent” better than Santini’s previous outing at Sandown, and the hope is that momentum is slowly being built up, ready to peak in the form of a Gold Cup-winning performance at Cheltenham in March. 

The lingering doubt remains Henderson’s confidence in Santini’s suitability for the Gold Cup when weighed up against the horse’s understated performances at the Festival in past years. The second-placed Novices’ Chase finish last year involved an epic three-way battle for victory, with Santini just falling short to Topofthegame, trained by Paul Nicholls. It’s that kind of tight finish where you see true demonstrations of a horse’s mettle, and Henderson will be hoping that experience stands Santini in better stead this year.

There are plenty of tough challengers for Santini to overcome. Defending champion Al Boum Photo will take some beating, with Willie Mullins the top-performing trainer of all time at the Cheltenham Festival. The 2018 winner Native River is also in the running, if a slight outsider, and these are the kinds of experienced challengers Santini will have to better if this momentum is to culminate in a fitting climax. The early signs have been positive, and with Santini showing strong form in January, who’s to say he can’t live up to Henderson’s billing.