By a quirk of fate, Altior is destined not to be celebrated as the best hurdler since triple Champion Hurdler Istabraq, writes Tony Stafford. I remember joining the throng attending Nicky Henderson’s stable opening as part of the 2016 Lambourn Open Day on Good Friday (March 25) when Altior shared attention with the great Sprinter Sacre, who was about to run his spectacular finale at Sandown the following month.
I was there to catch up with Henderson’s long-time assistant and confidant Corky Brown as we’d made the initial steps into writing a book about the great man – Corky, that is, although Nicky’s pretty great too!
Sprinter Sacre was unfailingly helpful for hours in several sessions as the devotees took their turn to be photographed with him, some even picking hairs out of his tail. The unlikely return to championship form after his survival from the well-documented heart condition that interrupted his career coincided with an admirable temperament. “You couldn’t do that with any other horse.” as Henderson said at the time.
The Corky book never went any further with no blame other than to Sprinter Sacre, whose phoenix-like rise from the ashes of his ailment was quickly and opportunistically celebrated in a book which definitively had to have plenty of references to Mr Brown. I didn’t read it – no sour grapes intended – but these days the trade review copies no longer darken my door.
Altior gained almost as much attention that enjoyable day when Sir Rupert Mackeson’s Marlborough Bookshop did a much-needed roaring trade, rather better than when I stood in as a trainee replacement at Ascot’s two-day November meeting.
The sensational son of High Chaparral had just thrashed his Supreme Novice Hurdle opposition in a manner that suggested to me he would be the one to challenge the then overwhelming superiority of the Willie Mullins stable in 2017. Faugheen, the 2015 winner, missed the next running but Annie Power’s able substitution kept the home team fearful that Irish domination might continue.
That 2016 Supreme was won with the now characteristic burst from the last obstacle that Altior exhibits in his chases, sometimes even when, as with his recent Sandown defeat of Un De Sceaux, defeat has briefly loomed as a possibility.
Min was his nearest Supreme challenger, with Buveur D’Air only third and Tombstone, Charbel, Mister Miyagi following and the multiple Grade 1 winners Supersundae and Petit Mouchoir in seventh and eighth in that select field of 14.
Both Altior and Buveur D’Air switched to chasing the following season, the latter winning twice before serendipitously reverting to hurdles, with the probably unexpected outcome of two consecutive Champion Hurdle wins.
Meanwhile the boy who would be king kept to fences. Starting with a 63-length bloodless romp over sole rival Black Corton at Kempton, he has never faltered. Black Corton had already won two novice chases by then and by wide margins, but he still had the final fence to jump when Altior coasted past the winning post. That was the same Black Corton who has now won 13 times and last season gave emphatic notice of regular partner Briony Frost’s talent when they won seven of eight races together between July 2017 and last February.
Since then for Altior it’s been six lengths from Charbel, 18 lengths, 13 from Fox Norton, six again from Cloudy Dream in the Arkle followed by an eight-length defeat of Special Tiara in his season’s finale at Sandown.
Last campaign’s return was delayed by wind surgery in November and that ruled out his customary Christmas stroll around Kempton – in 2015 he won his novice hurdle there by 13 lengths before beating Min for the first time; Christmas 2016 brought an 18-length novice chase romp and of course normal service was resumed last week.
Henderson was restricted with only Newbury’s Game Spirit Chase as preparation for the Queen Mother Champion Chase and, in Politologue, Altior faced a fully fit and worthy opponent. He comfortably landed the odds by almost four lengths. He again saw off old rival Min in the big one and by the identical seven-length margin. Those who backed the great horse – still unbeaten over jumps – will have marvelled at his even-money starting price. He followed up with another nice win from San Benedeto at Sandown in April.
Back on an even keel this season, he powered home from Un De Sceaux at Sandown in the Tingle Creek before sauntering to that 19-length margin last week at Kempton. A few minutes after the race, Nico de Boinville was walking past the Bookselling Baronet’s stall near the weighing room and I called out: “Best ever, Nico?” He grinned and said simply: “Yes”. In case you were wondering, I do not loiter there the whole afternoon.
I wish Altior had stayed hurdling even though he has never been anywhere near being beaten in his steeplechases. If Nicky Henderson can keep him sound, I believe he will become one of the all-time greats, if he’s not there already.
Meanwhile on a Christmas of shocks for some of the stars of the sport, Buveur D’Air was caught late by his stable-companion Verdana Blue in the Christmas Hurdle, to end a winning run stretching as far as his third to Altior as a novice hurdler. In Ireland Getabird and Samcro were among a host of beaten favourites in the major races.
One well-fancied Irish jumper that did win was the Joseph O’Brien newcomer Sir Erec, who has transferred into the ownership of J P McManus since his good third behind Stradivarius for the Coolmore team and Aidan O’Brien in Ascot’s Champion Stayers race in October. While watching that narrow success in the William Hill betting shop I pointed out to Peter Ashmore what looked like a generous offer.
For the three English jumps meetings, Kempton, Wetherby and Chepstow, Hill’s offered 11-4 (from 7-4) against a cumulative winning margin of above 30 lengths at all three tracks. We took the bait and now it was all down to the horses – or rather in the case of Kempton, the Judge.
The second race at Wetherby was a three-mile novice chase and with the Skelton-trained and -ridden favourite flopping, Top Ville Ben won by 46 lengths to close out that part of the deal.
With the Welsh Grand National and a series of stamina tests in the Chepstow mud, we were confident of succeeding there, and with Altior and (so we thought) Kalashnikov for a couple of exhibition rounds to come at Kempton what was there to worry about?
Chepstow’s first two races were each won by seven lengths and with five more stamina tests including the Grand National, it looked comfortable, but the next three races including the big one totalled only two lengths. It took a wide-margin bumper success for the favourite in the last to reach the target.
Meanwhile at Kempton, the opening juvenile hurdle, won by a Gary Moore 25-1 shot, produced 1.5 lengths; Kalashnikov was never going as well as Dynamite Dollars, but Jack Quinlan kept persevering so only another 1.25 lengths was added. Disappointingly the three mile mares’ handicap hurdle was also won by fewer than two lengths. Altior’s margin of 19 lengths – let’s face it Nico, it could have been 99! - meant we needed just over seven lengths to collect.
We stayed to watch the penultimate race and when Adrien Du Pont drew away after the last, we thought maybe five lengths. The Judge said three and a half. So we still needed three and a bit for the last. We listened to the commentary in the car and heard Eddiemaurice going clear. Out of our hearing Unison, apparently beaten at the last, rallied to within – you guessed it – three lengths. That made it exactly 30 lengths. Looking back at the film when I got home, I reckon the Judge could easily have stretched the required tiny notch we needed in any one of them. It’s hard enough to win without the Judge conspiring against you, too!