For a while it looked like Altior was unstoppable. Nicky Henderson’s prized racehorse had been unbeaten in his jumps career up until November 2019, a run which stretched across four years of racing. Altior and jockey Nico de Boinville were a force to be reckoned with, and looked invincible in National Hunt races.
But on a rainy November day at Ascot, Altior’s perfect record came to an untimely end. In the 1965 Chase, Cyrname, ridden by Harry Cobden and trained by Paul Nicholls, pipped Altior to the finish line in a late charge for victory.
Since then, it hasn’t been plain sailing for Henderson and Altior. The gelding has not raced since that defeat, and was forced to miss the recent Silviniaco Conti Chase at Kempton due to fitness concerns. From such a position of strength prior to that race at Ascot, Altior’s position among racing’s best performers appears to be in doubt.
But the upcoming Cheltenham Festival offers a chance for Altior to fully get back on track. At such a massive event, with sports fans from all over the world tuning in, de Boinville will be motivated to deliver a strong performance, and Henderson will be desperate for a return to the winner’s enclosure.
The Queen Mother Champion Chase is the focus for Henderson, and Altior is the current 3/1 favourite in Cheltenham betting odds to win the event ahead of Philip Hobbs’ seven-year-old Defi Du Seuil. The Champion Chase is a historically famous event, and Altior has won the race in the previous two seasons, so Henderson and de Boinville will be eyeing a hat-trick of wins in the event to get Altior back on track.
But concerns over Altior’s fitness will continue to linger in the weeks ahead. He was expected to return to action in the recent meeting at Kempton, but Henderson was forced to withdraw his horse from contention after failing to make the grade fitness-wise.
“We do not feel he looks his absolute best,” Henderson said in the days leading up to the Kempton meet, “and despite working well on Saturday he is still not 100% compared to previous years and he could still be feeling the side effects of the antibiotics he was given to treat the abscess on his wither.”
Altior’s apparent physical vulnerability at the moment will give a boost to those seeking to upset the odds in the Champion Chase at Cheltenham and get the better of the favourite. Defi Du Seuil is currently priced at 7/2 to take the crown, and has been enjoying fine success in recent months, but it remains to be seen whether Hobbs will even enter his horse in the event, with the option of the Ryanair Chase also on the table.
The trainer said: “He’s in the Champion Chase and the Ryanair but it’ll depend on ground and opposition. If it’s good ground – and the opposition was weaker in the Ryanair nearer the time – then we could always change track. Last year we left him in the Arkle and JLT and decided when we had two days to declare. We’ll do the same this year.”
There are two ways for Hobbs and Altior’s other potential opponents to look at the Champion Chase. One is that de Boinville and his horse will be vulnerable having struggled with form and fitness in the months prior. Another is that all parties associated with Altior will be especially motivated to get back to winning ways and cause a stir at the famous Cheltenham Festival. Class is permanent, after all, and Henderson will be hoping that Altior can prove that fact when March comes around.