Henderson’s health is tested as winning machine Altior digs deep to retain title
The latest number one against his name tells nothing like the whole story.
More than once it seemed this was the day when the glorious victory streak would come to an end. If we thought that, Altior plainly did not.
For the 18th consecutive race, and for the fourth time at the Cheltenham Festival, the supreme champion of two-mile chasing did the only thing he now knows how to do. He made us sweat and put his trainer through torment but he won.
For one horrible moment it appeared he might not even finish. The water jump is the smallest fence Cheltenham owns but it was where Altior made the biggest mistake of his life. Perhaps he was just teasing us, as perhaps he was teasing Sceau Royal when permitting him to race into the lead on the short run between the final two fences.
The situation looked precarious but no horse finishes a race as strongly as Altior. For that reason Patricia Pugh’s pride and joy is now a dual winner of the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase.
He also shares the world record for consecutive successes over jumps, having equalled the mark set by another quadruple festival title holder, the mighty Big Buck’s. The workmanlike manner in which 17 wins became 18 might give hope to those who take him on at Sandown next month. Let them hope. Let the rest of us admire a superstar of our time.
“It’s almost like he doesn’t know how to lose,” said rider Nico de Boinville. But the prospect of losing stared trainer Nicky Henderson in the face as he watched the closing stages begin to unfold.
“The other horse looked to land running and he must have headed him,” said Henderson. “I thought, ‘Hells bells, we’ve got trouble here’, but it’s amazing how he picked up. He knew what he had to do.
“It was a cracking good race for everyone else. For me it was hell. It is seriously like hitting your head against a brick wall. The only nice bit is when it stops.”
De Boinville, whose mount was ultimately well on top of Politologue and Sceau Royal at the line, found the experience much less traumatic.
He explained: “You have to remember that when you’re riding you’re so in the moment you don’t have time to think about anything else. That’s why it’s good therapy, I suppose.
“I thought he’d always find that extra gear – and I always trust in that gear. I don’t know where it comes from. He’s a fantastic horse and has pulled it out of the fire again. He pulled up a tired horse but is phenomenal.
“Every race he runs seems to enhance his reputation. He goes from win to win. The winning streak he’s put up is incredible. He’s in the highest echelons of racehorses. I’m sure when I retire I’ll look back on these days and think, ‘Wow, that was fantastic’. I’ll have fond memories but we’ll keep kicking on.”
He and Henderson also have fond memories of Sprinter Sacre, whose own name is stamped twice on the Champion Chase roll of honour. One of the all-time greats had strolled around the Cheltenham paddock earlier in the day, no less gorgeous than when his exploits on the track made us fall head over heels in love.
“I don’t think I rode Sprinter Sacre at his peak, but I’m riding Altior at his peak, which means, for me, he’s the best I’ve ridden,” said De Boinville. For his boss, it may never be possible to rank the champion of now above the champion from then. Why should he ever have to?
“To have had two horses consecutively come into your life like Sprinter and Altior makes us very lucky people,” said Henderson.
“They’ve both done their bit for us – and I think for racing too. It’s lovely when people take to horses like that and they genuinely become public horses. We’re lucky to have them but they come with health warnings.”
On balance, though, Altior is surely good for the health. He most definitely makes the heart beat faster.
Champion Chase winners by Racing Post Rating
2019 Altior 174
2018 Altior 183
2017 Special Tiara 170
2016 Sprinter Sacre 176
2015 Dodging Bullets 169
2014 Sire De Grugy 173
2013 Sprinter Sacre 190
2012 Finian’s Rainbow 175
2011 Sizing Europe 176
2010 Big Zeb 172
(ten-year average 176)
Five things we learned on the second day of the Cheltenham Festival
The importance of timing your run – and it’s even more important on the New course
Wicklow Brave looked home and hosed in the Coral Cup when hitting the front still hard on the bridle, but he was picked up late by a stronger stayer. It would be harsh to criticise Patrick Mullins for getting there too soon, as his mount was delivered with a terrific chance, but with the benefit of hindsight, delaying his move may have resulted in victory.
Going a strong gallop on testing ground leaves horses vulnerable to being picked off up the notorious hill, and this will become even more significant when the action moves to the New course on Thursday.
There are only two jumps in the final six furlongs, which places the emphasis firmly on stamina, so siding with horses proven at the trip and likely to benefit from patient rides could be the best approach.
Too much can be read into trainer form based on small samples
Gordon Elliott was badly out of form. Well, for about two hours. Blowouts for Apple’s Jade and Battleoverdoyen led to speculation that Elliott’s team was under the weather. However, Delta Work ran with credit in the RSA, looking as if he was simply beaten by two better horses, while Tiger Roll then went on to land one of the easiest festival victories you will ever see in the cross-country chase. Success for the heavily punted Envoi Allen made it a good day for Elliott.
It brought back memories of last year, when Elliott failed to win on the opening day, with Apple’s Jade among the disappointments. Elliott then fired in eight winners, equalling the record for victories at one festival.
Perhaps making hard-and-fast judgements on trainer form, based on a small sample size at the most competitive meeting of the year, is not a good idea.
Joseph O’Brien rules the juvenile division
Band Of Outlaws bolted up in the Fred Winter, Fakir D’Oudairies ran with credit to make the frame in the Supreme, and we’ve not even seen the best of Joseph O’Brien’s powerful bunch yet!
Sir Erec is many people’s idea of the banker of the week in the Triumph Hurdle and events at the festival so far will not have deterred them.
The Irish juveniles simply look a lot better than their British counterparts – they had the first three home in the Fred Winter – and Sir Erec’s win at the Dublin Racing Festival, allied with his Group-class Flat form, marks him out as the clearly dominant force.
Ground is better in theory but won’t suit every horse
Heavy rain followed by blustery, drying conditions led to the ground being described by jockeys after the first race on Wednesday as being “tacky”, “dead” and “harder work than yesterday”.
However, times and the official going description suggested runners were racing on a faster surface than Tuesday.
Fresh ground on the New course should make it seem less “hard work”, but having horses who are effective on a variety of surfaces, and don’t bomb out when conditions aren’t spot on, will be advantageous.
Topofthegame puts to bed any concerns over attitude
A high head carriage, a failure to see off La Bague Au Roi at Kempton, and an incident at the start of an Exeter novice chase when he whipped around and forfeited ground, had planted a seed of doubt about Topofthegame’s attitude.
But he laid those concerns to rest with a faultless performance to win what will almost certainly go down as a high-class renewal of the RSA Chase, both him and runner-up Santini appealing as serious Gold Cup contenders with the prospect of further improvement to come.
fonte : RacingPost