Cheltenham 2017: Two Legends In The Making

May 2010 has turned out to be a great month for National Hunt Racing. Altior, foaled on the 6th of May 2010, and Douvan, born just 3 days later on the 9th, have emerged as two of the most exciting racehorses of a generation and they will both be strutting their stuff at the biggest show of all at Cheltenham 2017 in March. Fate has decided that they are both 2 mile chasers of the highest quality, though Altior is still in his novice season, so we will have to wait to see them clash.

He will take his chance in the Arkle this time, whereas last year’s winner of that race, Douvan, will head for the Queen Mother Champion Chase. The loss of Sprinter Sacre to injury was a big blow to the 2 mile chase division earlier this season, but Douvan and Altior could prove to be worthy successors to the two-time Champion. If they both stay fit, next year’s Champion Chase will be one of the most eagerly anticipated races of all time.

Age: 7
Starts: 12
Wins: 10
Prize Money: £194,866

Nicky Henderson has trained some seriously talented animals during his long and illustrious career and it looks as though he has unearthed another machine in Altior, a son of High Chaparral who was bred by Paddy Behan in County Laois in Ireland. His Key Of Luck dam, Monte Solaro, is out of a dam that is a half-sister to Moorish, a gelding that finished second in the Triumph Hurdle.

When Altior went through the ring as a 3yo at Goffs in June 2013 he was picked up for €60k. He has already repaid that fee and more, by picking up almost £200k in prize money after just 12 career starts. He would taste defeat on two of his first three starts in bumpers, but he has remained unbeaten since making his hurdling debut at Chepstow back in October 2015. He hacked up by 34 lengths in that good ground Novices’ Hurdle and he obliged again under a penalty three weeks later at Ascot.

Next up was his first start in Grade 2 company and, sent off at 2/1, he prevailed by half a length from Maputo at Cheltenham. A facile win in a class 2 heat at Kempton on Boxing Day followed and the scene was set for a sensational Supreme Novices’ showdown at Cheltenham with Willie Mullins’ highly touted French import, Min.

The Mullins’ horse was sent off the 15/8 favourite, whereas Altior could be backed at 4/1. However, the result was never in doubt once they jumped the penultimate hurdle, with Altior travelling ominously well. The Henderson horse pinged the last and powered clear up the hill, leaving Min trailing in his wake and winning by an ever-increasing margin of 9 lengths.

Rather than go down the Champion Hurdle route, Altior was sent chasing this season. He has demolished every field he has faced and his four chase starts have been won by a combined total of exactly 100 lengths. He made a couple of mistakes in his first Grade 1 chase at Sandown back in December, but apart from that his jumping has been flawless. The handicapper has rated him 170 and he could well improve again on that figure at Cheltenham 2017.

A possibly bigger field in the Arkle is a slight concern but, as he showed last year, he is at his best in a strongly run race. His odds of 1/3 are reflective of his chances in that contest and though he still holds a Champion Chase entry, we will likely have to wait until 2018 to see a mouth-watering clash with Douvan. For me, there is no better sight than a proper 2 mile chaser attacking the big fences at the festival at breakneck speed and Altior is a horse with the flair, heart and turn of foot to go all the way to the top.

Age: 7
Starts: 15
Wins: 14
Prize Money: £523,731

Willie Mullins and Rich Ricci have enjoyed plenty of success at Cheltenham in recent years and in Douvan they have a horse that could potentially dominate the 2 mile chase division for years to come. This 7yo French bred son of Walk In The Park has won 14 of his 15 career starts, his sole defeat coming on debut at Saint Malo in France.

He was snapped up by current connections for a fee rumoured to be around £140k after winning impressively on his next start at Compiegne. Even by Rich Ricci’s high standards, he has proved to be a shrewd purchase and he remains unbeaten in 13 starts on these shores, racking up over £500k in prize money.

It was a sign of things to come on his heavy ground hurdling debut at Gowran Park in November 2014 when he handed a 12 length hiding to Sizing John, a horse that would soon become sick of the sight of Douvan’s behind during the next couple of seasons. Mullins wasted no time in stepping him up in grade and he didn’t disappoint in Grade 2 at Punchestown next time out.

He travelled very strongly under Ruby Walsh in that race and he won hard held. Next stop was the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at the Festival and he was sent off the 2/1 favourite for the opening race. He didn’t disappoint the Irish throngs who had him as their festival banker and they roared him home as he stormed away up the hill to score by 4.5 lengths.

A second Grade 1 Hurdle triumph followed at Punchestown in April and the racing world waited with bated breath to see him tackling the bigger obstacles the following season. He sparkled on his chase debut in a Novices’ heat at Navan, where a slight mistake at the last was his only blemish. He was stepped back into Grade 1 company at Leopardstown at the Xmas festival and he still managed to beat Sizing John 18 lengths, despite making a couple of jumping errors.

Another bloodless Grade 1 victory at Leopardstown followed and he was again considered an Irish banker at the 2016 Cheltenham Festival. He was sent off at just 1/4 in the Arkle, but that looked like value in hindsight as he again proved far too good for Sizing John. A customary minor mistake at the last was a bit of a hairy moment, but he still won by 7 lengths and he had plenty left in the tank when crossing the line.

Further authoritative Grade 1 wins followed at Aintree and Punchestown, by a combined total of 25 lengths, and Douvan was awarded an official rating of 169 by the handicapper. His mark has been upped to 174 after three decisive wins this season, two Grade 2s and a Grade 1, and he is a best price of 1/3 for this year’s Queen Mother Champion Chase.

This horse possesses stamina and speed in abundance, and he also has an enormous engine. His jumping can be spectacular at times, and he is guaranteed to keep spectators on the edge of their seats. If you only watch one race at this year’s festival, make it the Champion Chase, because Douvan could be ready to produce a performance for the ages.