Possibility of cheekpieces not ruled out for Altior at Cheltenham

Nicky Henderson has raised the possibility of Altior being fitted with headgear for the first time to aid his bid for a third victory in the Queen Mother Champion Chase at Cheltenham.

The 11-year-old is unbeaten in four previous appearances at the Festival, having won the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, the Arkle Trophy and back-to-back runnings of the Champion Chase.

Despite his excellent record at the showpiece meeting, Altior will return to the Cotswolds as an underdog next month, having missed last year’s Festival through injury and endured a far from straightforward campaign so far this term.

However, speaking on a Zoom call to discuss his Festival squad on Thursday, Henderson was in optimistic mood when assessing Altior’s chances of regaining his Champion Chase crown – and admitted he is considering the application of cheekpieces in three weeks’ time.

Altior looks on from his box at Seven Barrows
Altior looks on from his box at Seven Barrows (David Davies/PA)

“He is great – he couldn’t be better. I’m very, very happy,” said the Seven Barrows handler.

“I think his whole demeanour is in a better place than it was.

“It hasn’t been easy – nothing in life is easy. Having been invincible, luck hasn’t gone his way with ground and things like that.”

When asked if his stable star could be declared with headgear when aiming to become only the second horse to win a third Champion Chase, after Badsworth Boy in the 1980s, Henderson added: “It will be considered and it’s something we have discussed.

“We have eliminated the Ryanair, so we might now try to sharpen him up a little bit over two miles.”

Altior has raced just once so far this season, having missed the Tingle Creek beforehand and the rearranged Game Spirit Chase since.

The High Chaparral gelding was laboured in suffering just his second career defeat in 22 starts over obstacles when runner-up to Nube Negra in the Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton, but Henderson feels he is in much better shape now than he was before the turn of the year.

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He said: “He raced very lazily and lacked his normal sharpness and accuracy at Kempton over Christmas. It was a pity Newbury had to go back a week as it took us off our step a little bit and we decided that we were going to tackle this a different way.

“Having missed the Game Spirit, Altior has since had a big gallop, jumping fences. He went off with Mister Fisher, who hasn’t run for a bit as well, and they were in good form and it all went very well.”

Former stable companion Sprinter Sacre sparked one of the most emotional scenes in recent Cheltenham Festival history when regaining his Champion Chase crown five years ago, and his trainer would love to see Altior follow suit.

He added: “One has to remember he is 11 now and he’s on 11-year-old legs.

“Sprinter winning his second Champion Chase was a miracle, and I don’t think you can hope for two miracles.

“It would be very special if Altior could do it, because he’s been a fantastic horse to have had.”

Henderson also issued upbeat reports on the well-being of his Unibet Champion Hurdle contenders, Epatante and Buveur D’Air.

Epatante was brilliant in last year's Champion Hurdle
Epatante was brilliant in last year’s Champion Hurdle (Tim Goode/PA)

Epatante is the defending champion, but needs to raise her game after suffering a shock defeat in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton on Boxing Day, while Buveur D’Air is out to wrestle back his crown, having struck Champion Hurdle gold in 2017 and 2018.

Henderson said: “They’re both past winners of the Champion Hurdle. They’ve both got little bits of work to do, but touch wood, they seem in good form.

“Epatante was very good in the Fighting Fifth (at Newcastle) and Christmas just didn’t go her way. We have a few things we hope we’ve ironed out, as obviously she is better than that.

“If we’ve got her back to where she was in the Fighting Fifth, then she’s got as good a chance as any.”

Buveur D’Air was a beaten odds-on favourite on his return from well over a year off the track at Haydock last month, but Henderson feels it would be dangerous to dismiss his chances at Cheltenham.

Buveur D'Air should not be written off at Cheltenham
Buveur D’Air should not be written off at Cheltenham (David Davies/PA)

He added: “I actually think Buveur D’Air has been forgotten. He’s out with the washing at the moment (in the betting), whereas Epatante is sharing the favourite line with Honeysuckle and Goshen now as well. It’s going to be very competitive.”

Of Goshen, who returned to his best at Wincanton at the weekend, Henderson said: “I’ve got to say I really do commend the Gary Moore team for getting Goshen back, because at the Triumph Hurdle last year he looked to be certainly one of our biggest threats this year, and then it looked as if he wasn’t on the radar at all.

“They’ve done a brilliant job to get him back and he looks a very potent threat, so we’ll see what we can do about that.”

The yard’s other big hope on the opening day of the Festival is Shishkin, who puts his unbeaten record over fences on the line in the Sporting Life Arkle Challenge Trophy.

Last year’s Supreme Novices’ Hurdle hero is a hot favourite to double his Festival tally, but Henderson acknowledges his task is far from straightforward, with Irish Arkle winner Energumene rated a potent threat.

He said: “It’s amazing how this race has changed. Three or four weeks ago Shishkin was odds-on and everyone was saying it would be boring, but all of a sudden Willie (Mullins) has come along with his two-mile novice (Energumene) and I think Allmankind was impressive again at Warwick.

“There’s a real fight on now and I think people are seeing it as one of the big headline clashes of the week.

Shishkin leads horses on the gallops at Seven Barrows
Shishkin leads horses on the gallops at Seven Barrows (David Davies/PA)

“He’s got a couple of bits of work to do and will have another school.

“Everything is fairly well on course at the moment.”

When going through some of his other Festival contenders, Henderson appeared particularly sweet on the chances of the aforementioned Mister Fisher in the Ryanair Chase, adding: “I’d like to think he’s got a very good shout.

“He went away with Altior earlier this week and his jumping has been very good.

“He won the Peterborough Chase, which was moved from Huntingdon to Cheltenham, and put up a first-class performance.

“He would very much like good ground. If he gets some decent ground, I think he’ll be very competitive.”

Altior to bypass Newbury and take direct Festival route

Nicky Henderson has confirmed Altior will sidestep next Sunday’s rescheduled fixture at Newbury and head straight for the Cheltenham Festival, while stablemate Champ is set for a surprise outing in the Betfair Cheltenham Free Bet Pot Builder Game Spirit Chase.

The Seven Barrows handler had intended to let Altior bid for a fourth victory in the Game Spirit ahead of aiming to wrestle back his crown in the Queen Mother Champion Chase next month, while Cheltenham Gold Cup contender Champ was due to make his seasonal reappearance in the Betfair Denman Chase on the same card.

However, with the cold snap causing the entire meeting to be pushed back eight days, Henderson has revised running plans.

In a statement posted on his Twitter feed on Sunday, he said: “First of all I would like to congratulate Newbury, the sponsors, the BHA and ITV for rearranging yesterday’s Super Saturday card.

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“They have done a fantastic job under difficult circumstances and we are keen to support the meeting as best as we can, so with that in mind, the intention is still for Buzz, Mister Coffey and now possibly Fred as well to take their chance in the Betfair Hurdle.

“With regards to Altior and Champ, under the current circumstances and having discussed the situation in detail with all connections involved, we have come to the conclusion that Altior will head straight to the Cheltenham Festival without a run beforehand.

“He is in excellent form, but he does tend to take his races quite hard and we have therefore decided to continue his preparation at home and almost certainly an away-day at some stage in the next 10 days.”

Champ will be taking a sizeable drop in trip to an extended two miles in the Game Spirit, but Henderson feels it is the correct call with a tilt at Gold Cup glory in mind.

He added: “We have to decided to change things around with Champ, very much for the same reason and our close proximity to the Festival.

Champ after winning at last year's Cheltenham Festival
Champ after winning at last year’s Cheltenham Festival (Andrew Matthews/PA)

“He will now drop back down to two miles and contest the Game Spirit, instead of the Denman Chase.

“He hasn’t run for a year, so we could be in danger that three miles may be slightly too far for his first run of the season. He is a fresh horse and can be quite free in his races, so it would be harder to curtail enthusiasm and you’re never going to take as much out over two miles as you are over three.

“He could be keen and do too much, so in the interest of the Gold Cup being his ultimate goal, it is preferable to run over a shorter distance, which could stop him having a harder race than necessary and also help eliminate the risk of the bounce factor.

“He was a very useful horse over two and two and a half miles last season and I think that the Game Spirit could suit him well, both in the short term and the long term.”

Altior far from certain for rearranged Newbury date

Altior is far from certain to take up an opportunity at Newbury on Sunday week as connections weigh up the “pros and cons” of a race so close to Cheltenham.

The ground will be a major consideration, because it is well documented that testing conditions do not suit Nicky Henderson’s charge, particularly in view of the time he will have to recover before the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase.

The Berkshire track’s Betfair Super Saturday fixture will go ahead next Sunday instead, after an inspection on Friday confirmed freezing temperatures will prevent it taking place on its original date this weekend.

Nicky Henderson with Altior
Nicky Henderson with Altior (Bradley Collyer/PA)

It was already confirmed before the inspection that the new slot on February 21 had been provisionally arranged.

Altior was declared for the Cheltenham Free Bet Pot Builder Chase – better known as the Game Spirit – with leading Gold Cup contender Champ in the Betfair Denman Chase. The latter has not run since last year’s victory in the RSA Chase at the Festival.

Henderson said: “It’s highly commendable that the card could be going to be re-run and we’re grateful the opportunity to run Champ and Altior is available.

“As far as Altior is concerned, I need to discuss further with (owners) Patricia and Christopher Pugh to sum up the pros and cons of a race at this stage, particularly with a view to the going we might encounter on Sunday week, which is all important. This is relevant to the reduced time gap between the two races.

Champ in winning action at Cheltenham
Champ in winning action at Cheltenham (Tim Goode/PA)

“As far as Champ is concerned, he is coming off a longer lay off and it is more important that he has a race prior to the Gold Cup, which, in fairness, is only two days short of a month between the two.

“Obviously we will keep all options open and everybody up to date with our plans.”

Henderson added: “I must say it will be a great effort on behalf of Newbury, the British Horseracing Authority, the sponsors and ITV should it all come off.

“It will be a big effort from everybody involved, and we’re very grateful.”

Henderson sticking to Newbury plan despite possible rescheduling

Nicky Henderson has confirmed Altior and Champ will take up their respective engagements at Newbury – even if Saturday’s high-profile card is rescheduled for the following weekend.

The Berkshire track’s Betfair Super Saturday fixture is already in serious doubt following several days of sub-zero temperatures, with an inspection called for 8.30am on Friday.

Discussions have been taking place about the possibility of the entire card being switched to a later date, and it is believed that a Sunday slot on February 21 is the favoured option.

Henderson said earlier this week he would “desperately request” that both the Betfair Denman Chase and the Cheltenham Free Bet Pot Builder Chase – better known as the Game Spirit – were saved, to give Champ and Altior the opportunity to run ahead of the Cheltenham Festival.

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And speaking on Thursday morning, the Seven Barrows handler gave his backing to restaging the meeting, which also includes the lucrative Betfair Hurdle, should it be on Sunday week.

Henderson said: “It’s fine by me. It’s the plan to run both Altior and Champ – they’ve got to have runs.

“We’re discussing everything with owners and things and it’s frustrating, but really nothing changes.

“I need to talk to Patricia Pugh about Altior and JP (McManus) about Champ, obviously. (But) if they send the whole card there (February 21), then we’ll be there.

“It’s amazing really that he (Keith Ottesen, clerk of the course at Newbury) says he doesn’t expect the ground to be that bad, which would help, as we wouldn’t want it very soft with that timing.

“I must say it will be a great effort on behalf of Newbury, the British Horseracing Authority, the sponsors and ITV should it all come off.”

Champ after winning at Cheltenham last March
Champ after winning at Cheltenham last March (Andrew Matthews/PA)

He added: “The horses were all geared up for this weekend and we’re just going to have to explain to them that Henderson has got his dates wrong!

“It will be a big effort from everybody involved and we’re very grateful.”

Having suffered just his second defeat over obstacles when beaten by Nube Negra in the Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton on his latest appearance, Altior will head to Newbury aiming to prove he still has what it takes to land a third Queen Mother Champion Chase next month.

Champ, meanwhile, will be looking to confirm himself a legitimate Cheltenham Gold Cup contender in the Denman Chase, having been off the track since his last-gasp victory in the RSA Chase at last year’s Festival.

Mullins’ firepower giving Henderson food for thought

Nicky Henderson is “praying” Newbury’s meeting gets the go-ahead on Saturday so he can put the finishing touches to several of his Cheltenham team in preparation for taking on the in-form Willie Mullins squad.

As well as vital prep races for the likes of Altior and Champ, having witnessed Mullins’ domination of the Dublin Racing Festival, Henderson knows nothing less than 100 per cent will do at Cheltenham.

“I wish I hadn’t watched it actually – it was slightly frightening!” said Henderson of Leopardstown’s two-day fixture.

“I certainly haven’t shown it to one or two horses. I don’t think Epatante needed to see Honeysuckle, or Shishkin needed to see Willie’s two-mile novice (Energumene) and Altior needed to see Chacun Por Soi.

Honeysuckle won the Irish Champion Hurdle for a second time
Honeysuckle won the Irish Champion Hurdle for a second time (Niall Carson/PA)

“I saw them and it gave me a mighty fright. I’ve never seen anything like it. Well done Willie – it was the most staggering weekend.”

The Dublin Racing Festival also gives the Irish horses an extra week to get over their exertions before Cheltenham, and Henderson is just hoping for no hiccups at this late stage.

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“The timing for them is better than this weekend for us, to be honest, to Cheltenham. From the Irish point of view, it will be perfect,” Henderson said on a call hosted by Great British Racing.

“There’s always pressure. These aren’t trials, but for Champ (in the Denman Chase) it is a form of prep race as he hasn’t had one since the RSA. For Altior (in the Game Spirit), it’s more of a trial as I need to prove he’s a Champion Chase horse.

“He’s already won it, but he didn’t make it last year because of a splint.

Altior (right) needs to bounce back from defeat at Kempton
Altior (right) needs to bounce back from defeat at Kempton (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

“The dream is still alive with them, but by Saturday night the dream could be over and that would be blisteringly disappointing, because when you think you have a Gold Cup horse and a Champion Chaser, I need to go to bed on Saturday night still having them.

“If everything went badly wrong on Saturday from our point of view, it would be like being stabbed in the back, so we go into these sorts of days with a certain amount of trepidation.

“If for some reason Champ’s jumping went to pot, we’ve left him in the Stayers’ Hurdle so he could go down that route, but I know (owner) JP (McManus’) team and ourselves see that as a very reserve engagement.”

While Henderson is already worrying about the competition at Cheltenham, of more concern is that this meeting beats the weather.

“If this meeting was lost, we’d desperately request that both these races, and the Betfair Hurdle as that is important too, were saved. We’ve got to get runs into them,” he said.

“We could do an awful lot with them at home, but having watched last weekend in Ireland, we are going to have to be pencil sharp to take on Willie and everybody. You can see how good the opposition is, so we have got to be razor sharp.

“I’m praying because we are primed for it, I don’t need another week. Often you’d buy another, but I really don’t need it because it’s starting to get close to Cheltenham, so anything like a hard race and it’s getting short enough to recover.

Champ, who won the RSA Chase under Barry Geraghty last season, return on Saturday
Champ, who won the RSA Chase under Barry Geraghty last season, return on Saturday (Tim Goode/PA)

“I seriously hope and pray that if this weekend was unable to go ahead, they could reschedule the two big races, the Betfair Hurdle and I’d like the bumper as well. It would be nice to have all of them.

“We need to answer back this weekend, we need to stake a claim, all of us, or we’ll get whitewashed and we don’t want that. We’ve got a strong team with Altior, Champ, Santini and the Champion Hurdle squad is strong. Honeysuckle versus Epatante will be fascinating. Buveur D’Air wants his crown back as well.

“We’ve got to look forward to what is coming ahead.”

Altior facing moment of truth in Game Spirit

Altior has the chance to prove he is still a force to be reckoned with in the two-mile division in Saturday’s Betfair Cheltenham Free Pot Builder Chase at Newbury.

Nicky Henderson’s superstar has won the Grade Two event, registered as the Game Spirit Chase, three times already, but he has plenty to prove this weekend.

Having missed the defence of his Champion Chase crown through an 11th hour setback last term, he did not reappear until Kempton at Christmas, when he had no answer to Nube Negra in finishing a laboured three-and-a-half-length second.

Henderson thinks Altior is on better terms with himself now, though, and is banking on him to regain the winning thread.

“He’s good, I think. Everything has gone well and this is the next step,” he said.

“He likes Newbury and his demeanour seems better to me than it was prior to Christmas – he’s more like his old self.

“The one thing he loves is schooling. I’m not very good at filming and blogging and the like, but we schooled him the other morning and (my wife) Sophie filmed him. We were schooling in the fog, you couldn’t see the first fence then this thing appeared, jumping the three in the middle of the five and then he disappeared into the fog again.

“You could see how incredibly quick, fast and accurate he is through the air. Nico (de Boinville) likes schooling him, but I find it terrifying to watch. There’s no point anything trying to go with him because, at home, nothing can.”

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Should things not go to plan this weekend, Altior does still have the option of stepping up in trip for the Ryanair Chase at Cheltenham.

“We’ve kept the option open of the Ryanair, he’s stayed in both,” Henderson said in a call hosted by Great British Racing.

“We’ve said before, Champion Chase but not full stop. It does look as if he’s lost a yard of pace. Two or three years ago we didn’t have a horse in the place who could work with him – it was like Sprinter Sacre and Simonsig, they were the only two who could go with each other.

“If after Newbury it looked like he did need two and a half, then he’s got the option. Nico has been desperate to run him over it ever since the fateful day at Ascot (when beaten by Cyrname last season). That wasn’t because of stamina he got beaten that day, it was ground and lack of fitness – I should never have run him.”

Paul Nicholls has two possibles in Greaneteen, second in the Tingle Creek, and Magic Saint.

“They’re both going to run and they’re both in good shape,” said Nicholls.

“We’ve left Greaneteen off since he ran very well in the Tingle Creek. The idea was to give him a prep here and it will give us a little bit of a guide as to whether we go for the Champion Chase or we go down the Ryanair route.

“Harry (Cobden) got off him at Sandown and said he might want two and a half (miles), but he goes well fresh and is in seriously good order and he’ll run well on Saturday.

“He doesn’t have to go to Cheltenham. He could even go to Aintree and there’s the Celebration Chase at Sandown at the end of the season.

Magic Saint on his way to victory at Cheltenham in November
Magic Saint on his way to victory at Cheltenham in November (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

“Magic Saint has been running very well this season and won well at Cheltenham early on.

“He’s now in the grip of the handicapper, so he has to run in graded races rather than handicaps.

“He goes well fresh and schooled great this morning. He’s won at Newbury before and is well capable of running very well on Saturday.”

Given Altior’s defeat last time out, Nicholls believes now could be a good time to take him on having come off second best behind him so many times.

“He (Altior) is probably not on the upgrade now. He’s been at this level and done very well, but obviously he got beat the last day in Kempton, which shows he is beatable,” said Nicholls.

“It might be now that he possibly wants a bit further than two miles. At Kempton, it looked to me like he was flat out most of the way and he ran a mighty race considering he’s an 11-year-old.

“He could be a little bit vulnerable nowadays to younger, improving horses. That’s always the case when horses have been very good and then they get to 11 or 12 and the younger horses are going to be snapping at their heels.

“Altior is the one we’ve got to beat, but he is beatable. You’ve got to be positive and give it a go and I think our horses are in good shape.”

Champ set to return in Denman Chase

Champ is set to put his Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup claims on the line in the Betfair Denman Chase at Newbury on Saturday.

The nine-year-old is among 10 entries for the Grade Two contest over three miles.

Trained by Nicky Henderson, Champ has not raced since winning the RSA Chase at Cheltenham in March due to several minor issues, but is ready to return to action.

“Nicky’s very happy with him and the plan is to run there,” said Frank Berry, racing manager to owner JP McManus.

“He’s had a few niggly problems, but he seems to be back now. Lets hope the racing is on and we get there on Saturday.

“We’ll be looking to be forward to it and hope everything goes well.

Clan Des Obeaux could take on Champ at Newbury
Clan Des Obeaux could take on Champ at Newbury (Steven Paston/PA)

“It would be most important to get a run into him before the Gold Cup.”

Champ’s potential rivals are headed by Paul Nicholls’ dual King George VI Chase winner Clan Des Obeaux and the Colin Tizzard-trained Lostintranslation, who was third in last year’s Gold Cup.

Nicholls can also call on Secret Investor while the list is completed by Aso, Ballyoptic, Cepage, Definitly Red, Kalashnikov and The Conditional.

Altior has just five possible rivals as he bids to win the Betfair Cheltenham Free Bet Pot Builder Chase for a fourth time.

The dual Queen Mother Champion Chase hero will attempt to get back on track after being beaten by Nube Negra on his reappearance at Kempton in December.

The Alan King-trained Sceau Royal, runner-up to Altior in this race 12 months ago, is in the mix with Fanion D’Estruval, Greanateen, Magic Saint and Sky Pirate completing the sextet.

Henderson reports Arkle favourite Shishkin in good shape since Doncaster

Nicky Henderson reports Shishkin in fine shape since completing his preparation for the Sporting Life Arkle Challenge Trophy Novices’ Chase by extending his unbeaten record over fences at Doncaster.

Shishkin remains an odds-on favourite to double his Cheltenham Festival tally next month, but does have a credible rival in Energumene – after an impressive win for Willie Mullins’ seven-year-old in the Patrick Ward & Company Solicitors Irish Arkle Novice Chase at Leopardstown.

Last weekend’s success in the Lightning Novices’ Chase took Shishkin’s career record to seven wins in seven completed starts under rules – and Henderson has confirmed his well-being following those latest exertions.

“Shishkin is in very good form,” said the Seven Barrows trainer.

“He has won at odds-on in his last three, but there is no such thing as a gimme.

“He’s done nothing since last weekend – he has had a quiet week and has come out of it fine.”

Henderson has also issued upbeat bulletins on three more stable stars – Epatante and Buveur D’Air, respectively bidding to retain and regain their Champion Hurdle titles next month, and his dual Queen Mother Champion Chase hero Altior.

The latter has run just once this season, when only second to Nube Negra at Kempton over Christmas, but is expected to be in action again before Cheltenham – in next week’s Game Spirit Chase at Newbury.

“The two Champion Hurdle horses are well, and they are doing their own thing,” he said.

“Altior is fine. He worked this morning and he schooled on Thursday – and I did put a film out (from the gallops on Twitter) to show that he actually exists.”

Henderson reveals back issue for Epatante

Epatante has been treated for a back issue since her defeat in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton.

Nicky Henderson’s mare, the reigning champion hurdler, suffered her first defeat since the 2019 Cheltenham Festival at the hands of Silver Streak.

Her winning spree encompassed three Grade Ones, but she was turned over at 1-5 at Kempton and had Henderson looking for a reason – which he thinks he may have found.

“No (she won’t run before Cheltenham), that’s an easy answer. She didn’t last year and she won’t this year,” Henderson told ITV’s The Opening Show.

“We’re very pleased. We’ve been tinkering, obviously she wasn’t right at Kempton.

“It was her back, more than anything, I think, and that is what we have been trying to sort out – hopefully we have. It’s just got her more relaxed in her back and more supple. Something was agitating her on the day.”

Henderson, who also confirmed Santini will run at Sandown next weekend if, as suggested, the Cotswold Chase is rearranged there, admitted he is still favouring the Queen Mother over the Ryanair Chase for former champion chaser Altior.

“He’ll run in the Game Spirit and then we’ll decide from there. He’s in both, but I would be favouring the Champion Chase,” he said.

Henderson upbeat on Altior’s Champion Chase hat-trick bid

Nicky Henderson remains optimistic Altior will put up a bold bid for a third Queen Mother Champion Chase success at the Cheltenham Festival, having noticed a positive change in his stable star’s demeanour since his surprise defeat at Kempton last month.

The superstar chaser claimed the two-mile crown in both 2018 and 2019, but was unable to bid for the hat-trick last March after suffering a setback in the latter stages of his preparation.

He was beaten for just the second time in 17 starts over fences when making his belated reappearance in the Desert Orchid Chase over the festive period, with a lethargic display seeing him finish second behind Dan Skelton’s Nube Negra.

Altior has this year been given an alternative Festival engagement in the longer Ryanair Chase, but Henderson believes his charge can become only the second horse to win a third Queen Mother after Badsworth Boy in the 1980s.

“There’s lots of conjecture about whether he’ll run in the Champion Chase or the Ryanair, but unless something categorically comes up and says this horse wants two and a half (miles), I’m expecting to run him in the Champion Chase,” he told Sky Sports Racing.

“Nico (de Boinville) is very keen to go two and a half, but I do think – and maybe I’m in dreamland – that there is something about him just at the moment that is different to how he was before Christmas.

“He’s gone back to doing all his work with his head on the floor. He always used to do that and it was noticeable earlier in the year that he was carrying it much higher, like a normal horse.

“Now he’s gone back to tanking along with his head down and I’m very pleased to see him like that.

“He’ll always go through that spot in a race where you think ‘are you going all right’, but he soon answers the question – and I don’t think he’s lost that.”

Champion Chase heroes Altior and Politologue feature again in Festival entries

Past winners Altior and Politologue are among 31 entries for the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase at Cheltenham.

The Nicky Henderson-trained Altior lifted the two-mile showpiece in 2018 and 2019, but missed last season’s renewal won by Politologue from the Paul Nicholls’ stable.

Politologue made a triumphant reappearance in the Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown while Altior suffered just his second defeat in 17 chase starts when runner-up to Dan Skelton’s Nube Negra in the Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton.

Rouge Vif was third to Politologue at Sandown, but was a disappointing last of four finishers in the Kempton race on ground his trainer Harry Whittington felt was unsuitable.

He said: “The ground wasn’t ideal for him at Kempton as he needs good ground. It was quick enough to back him up after the Tingle Creek, but he seemed in good form and he has taken his races well in the past. It was a shame they had the rain overnight at Kempton.

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“He did run a bit flat, but it was only three weeks after a big effort in the Tingle Creek. We have a nice long spell to that week in March. If it comes up soft he might not run and we would potentially wait for the likes of Aintree, Sandown and Punchestown.

“We have just got to wait and see what the ground conditions are like. It was a lesson learnt last time though and we won’t be running him quick again after a big run, even though he is a very tough horse.”

Chacun Pour Soi (right) is ante-post favourite for the Queen Mother Champion Chase at Cheltenham
Chacun Pour Soi (right) is ante-post favourite for the Queen Mother Champion Chase at Cheltenham (PA)

Henderson has also made an entry for Grade Two scorer Janika, while Nicholls’ other potential runners include Duc Des Genievres, Greaneteen and Magic Saint.

Heading the market at 5-4 with sponsors Betway is Chacun Pour Soi, one of 14 Irish-trained entries.

Willie Mullins’ charge has yet to run at Cheltenham, having missed this contest last season due to a last-minute injury.

He has, however, looked imperious in two races so far this season, most recently cruising to victory in the Paddy’s Rewards Club Chase at Leopardstown.

Put The Kettle On has won all her starts at Cheltenham
Put The Kettle On has won all her starts at Cheltenham (Simon Cooper/PA)

Third behind Chacun Pour Soi at Leopardstown was Put The Kettle On, trained by Henry de Bromhead. The seven-year-old mare boasts a formidable record at Cheltenham, having won all three of her starts there including the Arkle Trophy at last year’s Festival and the Shloer Chase in November.

Another Irish entry to have already tasted success at Cheltenham this season is Michael Winters’ Chatham Street Lad, impressive winner of the Caspian Caviar Gold Cup last month. 

First Flow has won six of his 10 starts over fences, including his last five starts culminating in the Castleford Handicap Chase under a big weight at Wetherby.

His trainer Kim Bailey said: “First Flow is a horse that needs heavy ground, and he was very brave when winning at Wetherby over the festive period.

“The Champion Chase is something we would think about, but the ground is going to be an important factor for him.

“He could run in the Clarence House Chase at Ascot later this month.”

Henderson eyes Game Spirit for Altior

Altior could bid to get back on track in the Game Spirit Chase at Newbury in February.

Trainer Nicky Henderson has used the Grade Two contest over two miles as a prep run for the Cheltenham Festival in the past, with Altior taking the prize in 2018 and 2020.

The Seven Barrows handler will be hoping the dual Queen Mother Champion Chase winner will show his spark in that race, having been beaten into second place by Nube Negra in Sunday’s Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton.

Altior was scoped after that race, and Henderson is awaiting the results.

“We’ve scoped him – but it has to go to the laboratory, and we will look at it from there,” he said.

“We scoped him on Christmas Eve, but it was perfectly clean. Our vet has been closed here – so all our scopes are going to Newmarket, and that takes a bit of time.

“We will probably know a bit more tomorrow. He was very bright and sparky in himself this morning anyway – and so was Epatante (second at 1-5 in Kempton’s Christmas Hurdle). She was very fresh.

“They did scope Altior there (Kempton), and there was something there. There was no blood or anything like that. There was probably a significant amount of mucus in there. You scope any horse after a race, and it always brings anything out of the bottom of the lungs.”

Looking to plans for Altior as he spoke at Newbury on Tuesday, Henderson added: “I would have thought this (Game Spirit) is the most likely place he will go.

“I’ve not thought about it yet (Cheltenham entries and Ryanair). I’ve not put him in the Clarence House, because that would come too quick anyway. We just want to get to him the bottom of a little bit.

“He has got a bit dreamier in his races – that is a bit of age and a bit of this and that. For all the world it looked as though he wanted two and a half miles because he finished his race very well – which was encouraging.”

Henderson reports ‘evidence’ of dirty scope for Altior

Nicky Henderson reports Altior to have returned an unsatisfactory scope following his shock defeat at Kempton.

The 10-year-old was beaten three and a half lengths by 20-1 shot Nube Negra on his seasonal bow in Sunday’s Desert Orchid Chase, struggling from an early stage despite being sent off the evens favourite.

Henderson was quick to underline his faith in the dual Champion Chase hero after the race, and it transpires there may have been an excuse for his performance.

The trainer told told Nick Luck’s Daily Podcast: “We had him scoped (after the race) – we can’t scope him again today because it’s a Bank Holiday and the laboratory is shut, but we have reason to continue investigating that.

“There was evidence (of a dirty scope). I spoke to (vet) Simon Knapp last night – he confirmed there was, and we need to do a tracheal wash, which then goes to the laboratory. I wouldn’t be surprised if we find there is something amiss.

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“It’s definitely not normal, because he was scoped on Christmas Eve and we know it was 100 per cent clean, but 48 hours is a long time in a horse’s life.

“It would be enough (to affect his performance) – it would in Simon Knapp’s opinion anyway.”

Henderson plans to ease off briefly with some of his string to ensure all are in top shape as the season builds into the new year.

“We’ve got one or two horses that aren’t quite right,” he said.

“I’ve got five runners tomorrow and then I think I’ve got two more this week – (then) we’re going to have a quiet time, and I think I might leave them alone this week.

“The ground is desperate, and I know we’ve got Sandown at the weekend – but when Sandown is heavy, it’s a completely different kind of heavy. I’m not blaming the ground at all yesterday, I’m only saying thank God we didn’t run him at Sandown (in the Tingle Creek Chase in early December).”

Henderson also suffered a surprise reverse at Kempton on Boxing Day when reigning champion hurdler Epatante was beaten by Silver Streak in the Christmas Hurdle.

The Seven Barrows handler suspects there was a reason for her below-par run too, but believes both she and Altior are capable of making amends when their issues are resolved.

He added: “I don’t think it’s the same (problem with Epatante) – I think something else will come up there, and I’ve got ideas. That wasn’t her, and we know it wasn’t her. (Whether she was in season) is being investigated.

“I’d be surprised if Epatante ran again before Cheltenham – she didn’t last year, and I see no reason to run her again.

“I’m perfectly happy with both these horses that I’ve got good grounds for thinking there are reasons behind this – and with a bit of luck and a following wind, we can get them back into action.”

Henderson dismisses Altior retirement talk after Kempton eclipse

Nicky Henderson dismissed talk of retirement for Altior following his surprise defeat on his eagerly-awaited return to action in the Ladbrokes Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton.

The dual Queen Mother Champion Chase winner suffered only his second loss in 22 jumps outings as he filled the runner-up spot behind Nube Negra in the Grade Two prize on his first start since February.

The writing was on the wall for Altior, who was a late absentee from the Tingle Creek at Sandown on account of the heavy ground, early on in the two-mile prize with Nico de Boinville pushing the multiple Grade One winner along from as far as five fences from home.

Though responding to pressure, the evens favourite was unable to bridge the gap to Nube Negra, with three and a half lengths separating the pair at the line.

Henderson said: “To be fair, he was never really taking him (De Boinville) where he wanted to go.

“If Paul’s (Nicholls) horse (Duc De Genievres) might have won, it might have had a bit more rhythm to the race and a bit of class to it. That is not the old Altior, I’m the first to confess, and it was hard work.

“He always seemed to be in top gear. Jumping-wise he wasn’t as electric as he usually is at home. You could say he was rusty, but it wasn’t like he blew up, so I’m not going to blame it on that.

“We’ve just got to see how he is and how he comes out of it. He was tired, but he puts a lot into it. If he puts a lot into it, he ought to be finishing a long way in front of them to be fair.

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“Unless he definitely tells us enough is enough, we’ve not discussed it (retirement) and that’s the last thing on my mind that we would retire him.”

While naturally disappointed with the result, Henderson believes there were a few positive points to take out of the performance.

He said: “I take little plusses out of it. He did actually finish it. He was going probably better at the end, he didn’t stop. It looked as though he wanted another half a mile (as) he was closing at the end.

“He should have beaten those horses and two years ago it was a formality. It wasn’t a penalty kick in the first place.

“Paul’s horse looked like he was going a right good gallop up there and we got past him well enough, but where the winner came from, I don’t know.

“If he had just gone past Duc De Genievres and won by five lengths, you would have been like ‘that’s good’. If you took the winner out, you would be saying it’s onwards and upwards.”

Cyrname and Altior faced off at Ascot last season
Cyrname and Altior faced off at Ascot last season (Simon Cooper/PA)

Although pleased enough with Altior’s preparation ahead of his return, Henderson believes his defeat behind Cyrname at Ascot on his seasonal bow last term may have had a lasting effect.

He said: “Talking to the veterinary team that walked in behind him at Ascot, they were fearful for him. As they said, you wouldn’t know how much damage you did. We’ve emptied the bucket that day and that may have left a scar on him.

“At Ascot last year the referee was about to count him out, but luckily he got back on his feet and was OK. He did come back and win the Game Spirit and we were happy coming up to Cheltenham, I must admit.

“I’m the first to admit he hasn’t been galloping over everything this time round, but you have only got to turn him into a fence and off he goes and you say ‘you’re all OK mate, it’s all still there’.”

Altior (right) struggled to land a blow at Kempton
Altior (right) struggled to land a blow at Kempton (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

Henderson is now considering giving Altior the chance to win a fourth Game Spirit Chase at Newbury in February ahead of potentially bidding for third success in the Queen Mother at the Cheltenham Festival the following month.

He added: “He has got to run again if he is going to go to Cheltenham. He would have to come back in the Game Spirit – I was rather thinking that might suit Shishkin, but I might need it for Altior. As Nico said, Shishkin would have won that by miles.

“You could do (miss Cheltenham), it’s all dependent on the weather.”

Sprinter Sacre was nursed back to his best by Henderson to win at Cheltenham
Sprinter Sacre was nursed back to his best by Henderson to win at Cheltenham (David Davies/PA)

The Seven Barrows handler has previous form when it comes to restoring stable stars to their former glories, having nursed Sprinter Sacre back to win a second Queen Mother following a spell in the doldrums – something he will take inspiration from in trying to get Altior back to his best.

He said “It was the same with Sprinter. It took a long time and lot of building up, but we haven’t got a lot of time at the moment.

“Don’t write off poor Altior yet, as I don’t think he is anywhere near writing off. We sat through these sessions with Sprinter, everybody wanted him retired and look what he gave us at the end – it was a day none of us will ever forget.

“If we had retired him, we wouldn’t have gone through the emotional rollercoaster of those last two days at Cheltenham, which were two of the greatest days racing we will all ever see. Thank goodness we did persevere. We don’t give up easily.”

Nube Negra shocks Altior in Desert Orchid heat

Nube Negra inflicted an emphatic defeat on Altior in the Ladbrokes Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton.

Nicky Henderson’s dual Champion Chase victor Altior, who was a late absentee from the Tingle Creek earlier in the season, ran in snatches throughout for Nico de Boinville, but ultimately had no answer to Dan Skelton’s impressive winner.

On the bridle throughout, Harry Skelton was at pains not to hit the front too soon on Nube Negra, who had not been seen since finishing second in the Kingmaker at Warwick in February.

Altior showed guts to keep in contention in the home straight and it briefly looked as if his famous turbo was going to kick in, but Nube Negra had plenty in reserve and was heavily eased, crossing the line three and a half lengths to the good.

The 20-1 winner was continuing a golden spell for the Skeltons, who have won Grade Ones with Allmankind and Shan Blue this season.

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With Willie Mullins’ Chacun Pour Soi impressing at Leopardstown, he is now 11-8 favourite for the Queen Mother Champion Chase with Altior out to 12-1 with Betfair. Nube Negra is also a 12-1 chance.

Harry Skelton and Nube Negra on the way to winning the Ladbrokes Desert Orchid Chase
Harry Skelton and Nube Negra on the way to winning the Ladbrokes Desert Orchid Chase (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

Skelton said: “It’s quite unbelievable. It’s taken me by surprise – you don’t expect necessarily to beat Altior. Nube Negra is not a horse that has thrived on really soft ground, but he has matured to the point now where he can handle that. I think that is the most taking part of today’s performance.

“I was amazed how hard he came back on the bridle turning in. He has always been a strong traveller for a horse that has threatened to be so good.

“I was so disappointed he got beaten in last year’s Henry VIII, but he is putting it right now. As a 16.3 (hands high) horse, I think he has just taken time. I’m just delighted with everything really.

“The owner has been very patient. We’ve always taken our time with him. He had a bit of an injury setback in the spring, but he couldn’t run because of Covid. We were never going to Cheltenham, we were going to Aintree, but he never got that chance.

“It was probably the best thing that ever happened to him as it gave him the chance to mature.

“He will definitely go to Cheltenham this year – the Champion Chase is his next stop. He is a horse that is very good fresh and the Clarence House will come way too soon and I think for a horse that has to be fresh, the Newbury race is just too close to Cheltenham for him.”

Nico de Boinville had no obvious excuse for Altior's defeat
Nico de Boinville had no obvious excuse for Altior’s defeat (Paul Harding/PA)

De Boinville felt Altior’s class had helped him make the frame, but was at a loss to explain his defeat as the evens favourite.

He said: “We will definitely get him home and give him a full MOT and see what has gone on.

“You don’t know whether something is wrong or if it is an age thing. We will get him home and see how he is. The good news is he looks safe and sound at the moment.

“I was in trouble a long way from home, but it probably shows what class he has got that he kept going all the way to the line.

“Full credit to Dan and Harry Skelton for having their horse in great condition for this.