'No horse in England would've kept up with him' - rave review for Altior workout
Altior is as good as ever according to Nicky Henderson, who believes his dual Champion Chase winner will prove it when back in action at Newbury on Saturday.
Henderson said he still regrets running Altior against Cyrname over a new trip of two miles and five furlongs at Ascot in November, when the ten-year-old lost an unbeaten record over obstacles stretching back 19 races.
But the trainer said that defeat has not left a mark on Altior and a sparkling schooling session had him excited for his comeback on his return to two miles in the Win Bigger On The Betfair Exchange Chase, registered as the Game Spirit.
Altior has been disposed as favourite for the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase, a race he was won for the last two years, and speaking at his Seven Barrows base Henderson bridled at a question which referred to "the old Altior".
He said: "It took Altior a long time to get over Ascot, but if you've seen the film of him schooling the other day you would seriously wonder why we ever thought he wanted to go further than two miles. No horse in England would have kept up with him – not one. If you blinked you'd have missed it.
"He works as well as ever, he likes going round Newbury, and the timing is great."
Reflecting further on Ascot, he added: "I just think Ascot didn’t help either horse at the end of the day. The problem was it was the first run of the season. If you do that later in the campaign that’s fine, but they were both having their first run and that is not the time to do that.
"Paul [Nicholls] might disagree with me totally but his horse didn’t run his race in the King George and we took a long time to get over it. Under normal circumstances he wouldn’t have run but you are then leaving the race as a walkover. What would the racing public say about that?
"We said we would have a go at a longer distance, but what we did was leave all the other races like the Clarence House going begging. It was the wrong thing to do but there was a lot of pressure put on us, people saying, ‘Come on, do something different. If you say he is a champion, prove he can stay. Otherwise he is just a boring two-mile chaser’. So he’s a boring two-mile chaser."
After the Ascot defeat Henderson was looking at a return to two miles in pursuit of a third Champion Chase as a potentially easier option to persevering over longer distances, but Altior is now generally third favourite for the race at around 7-2 behind Defi Du Seuil and Chacun Pour Soi, a far cry from the last two years when he has started at evens and 4-11.
Henderson said: "It's gone the other way now and it's turning out to be a really good race. Altior has to prove himself again but I think he can. He’s been beaten once in a two-mile-five race in a bog when he wasn’t half ready for it. He got beaten. It was going to happen and that was the day. He had a very hard race and he was very tired.
"It wasn’t stamina because he didn’t finish any further behind the winner than he was two out. He wasn’t straight enough and the ground was horrible. It’s going to be a decent race on Saturday but he's pretty ready. There are ten in there so they’re not frightened of him."
Altior is a general 1-2 chance to record a third win in the Grade 2 event at Newbury, a contest which did not take place 12 months ago owing to equine flu.
While the racing public is eager to see Altior again, Defi Du Seuil's connections will also be taking more than a passing interest, as trainer Philip Hobbs on Monday revealed no decision on his Cheltenham target would be made until after they had seen how he got on.
Dublin Chase winner Chacun Pour Soi, the last horse to beat Defi Du Seuil when four and a quarter lengths his superior at the Punchestown Festival last year, reasserted his case on Saturday and has moved into second favourite after a disappointing reappearance over Christmas.
But while Hobbs was impressed, it is Altior who will have a bigger impact on Defi Du Seuil's target. He said: "Chacun Pour Soi ran very well but we'll watch Altior this weekend as well, that's the important thing really. We'll see what happens on Saturday and then decide which race we go for."
Since that defeat by Chacun Pour Soi last season Defi Du Seuil has won the Shloer, Tingle Creek and Clarence House and improved his official rating by 8lb.
On those figures the JP McManus-owned seven-year-old still has 5lb to find with Altior and it is perhaps telling that like Chacun Pour Soi, Defi Du Seuil also holds an entry in the Ryanair Chase while Altior's only festival option is in the race he has claimed for the last two years.
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