Next step for Altior as he bids to fill Sprinter Sacre's sizeable shoes
bet365 Celebration Chase | Grade 1 | 1m7½f | 5yo+ | ITV/RUK
Last year this race proved to be a glorious swansong for one of the greatest two-mile chasers we have seen in Sprinter Sacre, but it is a very different stop on the journey for his heir apparent Altior.
The care and dedication shown by trainer Nicky Henderson and his team to get Sprinter Sacre back to near his best last season was magnificent. To date, the same team’s skills have been utilised brilliantly again to harness the raw power of Altior into win after win.
So fervent has the expectation surrounding Altior been, a six-length victory in the Racing Post Arkle at the Cheltenham Festival was viewed as underwhelming by many.
Mind you, those harsh judges may be assessing his performance in the knowledge he had slammed subsequent Aintree and Punchestown Grade 1 scorer Fox Norton by 13 lengths the time before.
He arrives at Sandown in perfect, shape having bypassed the Aintree Grand National meeting earlier this month, and Henderson said: “Altior has always been going for this race and he's in excellent form. Aintree comes quite quickly after Cheltenham and this fitted in better with what we wanted to do with him.
"It’s going to be a very interesting race and I hope he can continue doing what he's been doing.”
Altior is joined by stablemate Vaniteux, a winner at Ayr last weekend and a valuable additional string to Henderson’s bow in his pursuit of as much prize-money as possible for trainers’ championship purposes.
“Vaniteux won at Ayr and I’ve been really pleased with him since,” Henderson said. “There’s a lot of prize-money for this race so why not have a go at it with him?”
This race may prove a very early pointer for the 2018 Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase at the Cheltenham Festival – albeit there is plenty of racing to happen before then.
Special Tiara took the crown last month for trainer Henry de Bromhead and jockey Noel Fehily, but it is Altior who heads the betting for the event at around 2-1.
De Bromhead said: "He travelled over perfectly well and has been in terrific form since Cheltenham; everything has gone to plan. I know Altior has looked very good and he's an exceptional novice, but he's the one taking us on.
"Right now Special Tiara is the champion two-mile chaser, and he was brilliant at Cheltenham. He loves Sandown and I'm really looking forward to the race. He's been such a terrific servant over the years."
Lurking in wait should the big two fail to fire is San Benedeto, who has already bagged a Grade 1 this year in unlikely circumstances.
An unfortunate trip from stablemate Politologue after jumping the last at Aintree left an open goal for San Benedeto and he converted, as he has done on several occasions already this season.
His trainer Paul Nicholls, who would really need to win this contest to be in with a chance of keeping Henderson at bay in the trainers' title, said: “He’s been a star this season and kept on winning for us.
"Realistically it’s going to be tough for him if the other two turn up in form. But it’s a funny time at the end of the season and we’ll be there to pick up the pieces if they don’t perform.”
2018 Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase
Betway: 6-4 Altior, 3 Douvan, 6 Yorkhill, 8 Fox Norton, 10 Min, 16 Charbel, Special Tiara, Un De Sceaux, 20 bar