Nicky Henderson is pleased a limited crowd will be on track at Sandown to witness Altior’s return to action in the Betfair Tingle Creek Chase.
Altior remains one of the biggest draws in National Hunt racing, and the master of Seven Barrows believes his stable star has an inkling he is very good himself.
However, Henderson must hope for a better result on Saturday than on Altior’s seasonal debut last year when he suffered his one and only defeat in 21 races over obstacles, to Paul Nicholls’ Cyrname at Ascot.
“Altior likes a crowd,” said Henderson.
“He knows what they are there for – otherwise he’d think it was just a racecourse gallop like he had the other day, although there was more press and media there that day than there had been on any other day since racing returned.
“It will be nice for him. He enjoys atmospheres and he’s a horse who thinks he’s quite smart, so if there are any admirers there it will be great.
“It’s always been the objective to start here, and if it stayed dry for the week it would help us. He’s been enjoying himself – he had that gallop at Newbury with (champion hurdler) Epatante, which obviously made it quite a good gallop.
“We don’t want a repeat of last season’s debut – I think you can call it a debacle. If I could have done I’d have taken him out on the morning of the race, but there had been such amazing hype before it, and I dare say the crowd had been boosted by the fact Cyrname and Altior were meeting.
“I think the mistake was we were doing it for the first runs of their season, and actually it was nearly their Gold Cup. We were prepared for our first run but not for a dust-up in heavy ground over two-mile-five. Paul’s horse was fit – but he took the race hard as well.
“It took Altior a long time to get back to himself, but he did do and was back for the Game Spirit. It was way after Christmas until he’d got over it, though – it did bottom him.
“I should have taken him out, but if I did I would have been lynched. I think we owed it to everybody not to duck the issue. Being honest, as a professional, I should have taken him out.”
While Altior did win his one and only other race last season, he was ruled out of the Cheltenham Festival by an untimely splint.
“He won the Game Spirit last year – he’s only been beaten once, which was in ridiculous circumstances,” Henderson added, in a call hosted by Great British Racing.
“Sandown is a nice track for him – he’s won the Celebration Chase three times, he’s won a Tingle Creek, the Henry VIII, and the ground never gets too bad down the back. I think he enjoys it.
“In March last season we were very happy with where we were and looking forward to the Champion Chase. It was just a really unfortunate thing to pick up a splint.
“He’ll be 11 come the Festival, and we’ll be looking to win there for a fifth time, but he is capable.
“He doesn’t show any signs of old age – I’m the one that’s getting old, he’s the one that is young at heart. We still haven’t got a horse here that can go over five fences with him.
“I don’t know if Nico (de Boinville) enjoys schooling him – I have to close my eyes as sometimes, you don’t know where he is going to come up from. He’s got so much scope, and he loves it.”