'He will run' - Henderson has no ground concerns as Altior is ready to return
Nicky Henderson said he has no concerns over the ground conditions at Kempton and will definitely run Altior on his planned reappearance in the Grade 2 Desert Orchid Chase on Sunday.
The champion trainer has no regrets about his controversial decision to withdraw the dual Champion Chase winner on the eve of the Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown earlier this month due to a surface he considered too testing.
Looking to avoid a repeat of Altior's gruelling defeat to Cyrname at Ascot last year – his sole loss in 21 races over obstacles – Henderson has instead rerouted his star chaser to Kempton's Christmas Festival, where he will be much more at ease with conditions despite soft ground remaining a possibility.
"I have no worries about the ground. He will run, he has to," Henderson said. "Soft ground at Sandown and soft ground at Kempton are two different sorts altogether: one gets sticky and the other doesn't.
"I don't regret my Tingle Creek decision even if everybody else for whatever reason didn't like it. Going back to the Cyrname race last year, that did him a lot of damage and I couldn't risk that happening again."
Altior waltzed to victory in this contest in 2018, but could face some stiff competition in the shape of the Paul Nicholls-trained Duc De Genievres and Irish raider Put The Kettle On, the last two winners of the Arkle at the Cheltenham Festival.
There are those who doubt Altior's ability to remain on top of the two-mile chase division given he will be an 11-year-old at the turn of the new year, but Henderson remains confident his fire still burns.
"He's got to prove himself, of course he does. There are doubters out there and they're perfectly entitled to be. But we're happy with him and where he’s going. We know Henry de Bromhead is coming over with the Arkle winner and I'm sure there will be others.
"We're all getting older and age slows all of us down, but he seems in very good form which he was going into Sandown as well. We just had to delay things a few weeks. He is a better horse on better ground."
Among the many stable stars Henderson is preparing to unleash over Christmas is Champion Hurdler Epatante, who made a hugely impressive campaign return in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle in November.
The six-year-old mare is set to contest the Grade 1 Ladbrokes Christmas Hurdle on Boxing Day, which Henderson has won a record nine times including with her last year.
He said: "She is all set to go. This was always the route we've intended to take. Touch wood, things are going well with her and we've had a good preparation.
"She had her medical check this morning and everything is fine. We're following the same route as last year and if all goes well on Saturday then she won't run again before Cheltenham in March."
Six rivals, including Goshen, Sceau Royal and Silver Streak, were entered for the race alongside Epatante on Monday, and Henderson admits there is pressure to live up to the lofty reputation she now carries.
"Every race is a test and she has to come through this challenge. There is a lot at stake and only a really good performance will satisfy the pundits."
Another race Henderson has won nine times is the Grade 2 Wayward Lad Novices' Chase, which he has claimed with some of his biggest stars including Remittance Man, Sprinter Sacre and Altior.
This year he sends Supreme Novices' Hurdle winner Shishkin, who made his chase debut in spectacular style at Kempton last month and is following a well-trodden path on his way towards the Arkle in March.
Keen to avoid comparisons with Altior, though, Henderson said: "We started him in the same race as Altior did and both of them virtually went round on their own. That's where the similarities between them end though.
"Shishkin has to get more experience. There will be some competition in here and he'll have to prove himself to be as good as we hope he is. Going round on your own doesn't teach you all that much."
Kempton clerk of the course Barney Clifford said: "It’s currently good to soft, good in places. The GoingStick was 6.8 over fences and 6.4 over hurdles which would align to the description.
"We’re expecting anything between 8-10mm of rain between now and Boxing Day so I should think it’s inevitable we’ll end up with good to soft, soft in places."
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