A bit wayward but Altior still kingpin with 17th straight win in Clarence House
Expectation can be a dangerous thing in sport but even when things are as one-sided as Saturday’s Clarence House Chase, Altior can be relied on to set the pulse racing.
Admittedly, it was his tendency to veer to his left approaching his fences, something unseen before, that was the main cause for palpitations as last year’s Champion Chase hero took his unbeaten record to 17 at odds of 1-10 in a seven-length defeat of Fox Norton with Diego Du Charmil, the only other runner, a further 34 lengths behind.
A victim of his superiority perhaps, anything but perfection is always likely to be scrutinised to the nth degree but while those looking in were slightly alarmed, there was certainly no panic from within his camp despite Altior’s head-scratching desire to drift left.
"He was getting a bit bored," was winning trainer Nicky Henderson’s initial view. "He’s only wandering around like a goof in the fog. He was doing nothing out there in front and wasn’t being competitive.
"He was feeling rather lonely, unwanted and unloved. It’s amazing how many horses you’ll see do that around Ascot. I don’t know why but it certainly doesn’t concern me in any way."
As any trainer will testify, the problem with horses is they cannot speak and with Altior keeping schtum, winning rider Nico de Boinville offered a different take on what might have been going through the champ’s mind, pointing to a possible hangover from his run in the Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton over Christmas.
"It’s a trait from when you follow something like Special Tiara, who does go violently right, they’ve just slightly got it in their head," mused De Boinville.
"He was very relaxed and when the tapes went up today he stood for half a second and had a bit of a look round. It’s the first time for a long time he’s had to do the donkey work."
Public confidence may have reached rock-bottom as Brexit bamboozles the brains attempting to run the country, but there is unwavering faith in Patricia Pugh's pride and joy delivering what is promised every time, and he remains unchanged at a general 4-9 to retain his title in March and in the process become the seventh horse to land the Clarence House and Champion Chase in the same season.
"He’s had three quick races and we’ve done that purposely so that he can then come into Cheltenham very fresh," said Henderson, who emphatically shut down any concerns with the health of his horses with a Saturday four-timer from just five runners.
"Cheltenham is the main aim but we’ve got things to do after that. Aintree, Sandown and even Punchestown will be considered but let’s get Cheltenham out of the way first."
Where Altior ranks among the best two-mile chasers of all time is perhaps a debate for after Cheltenham but if the numbers are believed there is certainly strong grounds to believe we are dealing with one of the very best.
This victory, a 12th consecutive chase success, equalled the record for the longest winning streak over fences held by Game Hen (1885-86) and Gangbridge, whose sequence included the 1901 Welsh Grand National.
Added to his wins over hurdles, he has now surpassed the legendary Sir Ken’s recorded of 16 consecutive wins and is just one behind the 18 racked up by the brilliant Big Buck’s.
"You’re getting to an extraordinary sequence," admitted Henderson. "We all hope it will never end but we all know it will. With every horse there’s a ghost around the corner who can haunt you. The wind problem he had last year was simple but we’ve got to enjoy him."
Based on those who surrounded the parade ring both before and after the race, Altior is certainly being enjoyed by the public, who clearly hold him in similar regard to Henderson’s last great champion Sprinter Sacre.
Comparisons can often be at best unfair and at worst cruel but while Altior has 13lb on official ratings to match his former stablemate’s peak mark of 188, Sprinter Sacre’s most prolific winning sequence was ten, seven less than Altior’s current streak.
In fact, Sprinter won ‘only’ 18 times in his entire career, two less than Altior has already achieved and he’s only nine.
"A horse as good as Sprinter comes along once in a lifetime and within six months of him Altior arrived. No one can be as lucky as we are to experience two horses like that," said their trainer.
"What made Sprinter so magical was the comeback. But like with Sprinter, it becomes public and Altior’s is quite a record to be defending."
He added: "It’s fair to say that a lot of people won’t call him a great horse until he can prove himself over a different distance and I’m sure next year the time will come when we probably will try him over further. But let’s keep the ball rolling and be very grateful to him."
Jumping to his left or not, there is no doubt we are all grateful to witness history being made.
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