Altior all set for Celebration time at Sandown

Nicky Henderson will be hoping there are no last-minute dramas and that Altior can prove he is no back-number ahead of his bid for a fourth victory in the bet365 Celebration Chase.

It has been a frustrating season for the once-unbeatable Seven Barrows superstar, with a combination of factors restricting him to just the one competitive appearance.

The 11-year-old missed an intended outing in the Tingle Creek at Sandown in early December due to unsuitable ground conditions – and when he did eventually return in the Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton a few weeks later, he was laboured in defeat behind Nube Negra.

Henderson was optimistic of a much-improved performance in the Queen Mother Champion Chase last month, but for the second season in succession, Altior missed out on a Queen Mother Champion Chase hat-trick bid following a late setback.

With cheekpieces fitted for the first time, hopes are high Altior can silence the doubters on the final day of the campaign.

“I am delighted to say that everything has gone very well in the lead-up to this race and, barring mishap over the next 24 hours, he goes there at the top of his game and in flying form,” Henderson told Unibet.

“He hasn’t raced on ground like this for quite some time, but we worked him on our grass gallop during the week with a couple of lead horses and he absolutely bounced off the surface so there shouldn’t be any excuses where that’s concerned.

“Obviously Put The Kettle On is a very talented mare and Sceau Royal is a big danger too, but we are all happy with Altior and the cheekpieces could help. It’s just great to get him back on track!”

Put The Kettle On (centre) has won the Arkle and Queen Mother in the last two years
Put The Kettle On (centre) has won the Arkle and Queen Mother in the last two years (David Davies/Jockey Club)

Put The Kettle On became the first mare to win the Champion Chase at Cheltenham – her second Festival success following victory in the Arkle 12 months earlier.

Trainer Henry de Bromhead, who also saddles Ornua, is keen to discover whether Put The Kettle on can prove as effective at Sandown as she is at Prestbury Park.

He said: “She’s unreal, she’s savage to do what she did in the Champion Chase, it was unbelievable. She loves it at Cheltenham.

“I don’t know whether it’s the travelling, Aidan Coleman or whatever – this week will tell us if it’s just Cheltenham, but we’ll gradually narrow it down as to what makes her tick over there.”

Paul Nicholls fires a twin assault, with Champion Chase fourth Greaneteen joined by course-and-distance-winning stablemate Dolos.

“Greaneteen ran very well in the Champion Chase and surprised a lot of people. He was second in the Tingle Creek here and we’ve kept him for this race,” said the Ditcheat handler.

“It’s an open race, I think. Altior has got a bit to prove possibly over two miles, but he likes it round there, and the one to beat is the Champion Chase winner.

“Dolos absolutely loves Sandown and quick ground. He’s a massive price for a horse with his rating and his record at the track.”

Alan King’s Sceau Royal endured a troubled run on his way to finishing fifth in the Champion Chase.

Sceau Royal will be suited by the ground
Sceau Royal will be suited by the ground (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

“It looks a helluva race, but our horse is in great nick,” said King.

“We had no luck at all in the Queen Mother, but he’s come out of it in good order and shouldn’t mind the ground, I don’t think.

“Let’s hope he’ll run very well.”

On the day he is crowned champion conditional jockey, Danny McMenamin bids for Grade One glory aboard Ann Hamilton’s Nuts Well.

Winner of the Old Roan Chase at Aintree in the autumn, the 10-year-old returned to the Merseyside venue to finish second to Irish challenger Fakir d’Oudairies in the Marsh Chase a couple of weeks ago.

Of Nuts Well’s prospects this weekend, McMenamin said: “He’s up against it, but hopefully he can run a nice race. I’m sure he won’t disappoint anyone.

“He’s a little dude and very straightforward to ride. He’s been climbing the ladder quietly away and I think people sometimes slightly underestimate him.

“It’s not a shock to me when he runs a good race up against the big lads.”

McMenamin’s decision to target the conditional riders’ championship has paid a handsome dividend, as he secured a comfortable victory over Bryan Carver.

He said: “It hasn’t quite sunk in yet. It’s been a brilliant season. The first couple of seasons were slow and steady, just trying to get the experience. This last season was all ‘go for it’, and it’s paid off on the end.

“I had it in mind (being champion conditional) at the start of the season, but I knew it wouldn’t be easy. I said I’d give it a go and not get too upset if it didn’t happen. Luckily enough, it’s worked out well.”

The 20-year-old hails from Downpatrick, like Grand National-winning rider Tony Dobbin, and follows in the footsteps of Sir Anthony McCoy and Brian Hughes, who are also from Northern Ireland and won the conditional competition.

McMenamin added: “It’s a bit surreal to be mentioned alongside the previous winners.

“My mum and Tony Dobbin are very good friends and the whole town was talking about Tony Dobbin winning the National and how well his career had gone over the years.

“He’s somebody I looked up to and he helped me make the decision to come across (to Britain) and give it a go. He’s been a great role model.

“AP McCoy is the best of them all and Brian Hughes is the best in the north. He was champion jockey last year and was right there for it this year. It’s brilliant to have names like that coming from Northern Ireland and coming over here and doing well.”

While McMenamin is thrilled to land the prize, he paid tribute to his parents who have worked as carers throughout the pandemic.

He said: “Mum and dad both work in a care home looking after elderly people, so they’ve been working hard this year – they’ve probably worked harder than me, to be honest.

“They’ve worked every day since Covid started – they deserve the credit this year.”

Altior and Put The Kettle On clash at Sandown

Altior will face six rivals as he bids to win the bet365 Celebration Chase for a fourth time at Sandown on Saturday.

Nicky Henderson’s dual Queen Mother Champion Chase hero took the prize in 2017, 2018 and 2019 – but was denied a four-timer 12 months ago as racing was cancelled due to the pandemic.

Altior has just had the three races since that success two years ago and was beaten on his latest start at Kempton in December by Nube Negra.

He missed the Champion Chase at Cheltenham last month with a setback, where the latter, trained by Dan Skelton, was runner-up to the Henry de Bromhead-trained Put The Kettle On.

Aidan Coleman celebrates Cheltenham glory with Put The Kettle On
Aidan Coleman celebrates Cheltenham glory with Put The Kettle On (David Davies/Jockey Club)

Nube Negra heads to Punchestown rather than Sandown, but Put The Kettle on does take her chance, with the line-up completed by Dolos, Greanateen, Ornua and Sceau Royal.

The Paul Nicholls-trained Frodon heads a field of four for the bet365 Oaksey Chase.

This season’s King George VI Chase winner drops back in trip after finishing fifth in the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

Taking him on are Mister Fisher, Born Survivor and Militarian. Tiger Roll, the two-time Grand National victor, was one of the three horses withdrawn at the 48-hour final declaration stage.

Rachael Blackmore  rides at Sandown on Saturday
Rachael Blackmore rides at Sandown on Saturday (Tim Goode/PA)

The Young Master, winner of the bet365 Gold Cup in 2016, is one of 16 horses declared for the prestigious handicap chase over an extended three and a half miles.

Trainer Neil Mulholland also runs Doing Fine while the weights are headed by Caroline Bailey’s Crosspark.

Among others seeking to land the big pot on the last day of the jumps season are Kim Bailey’s El Presente, the Nicholls-trained Enrilo, Christian Williams’ pair of Cap Du Nord and Kitty’s Light and Irish raider Plan Of Attack from the De Bromhead stable, the mount of Rachael Blackmore.

Altior could clash with Put The Kettle on at Sandown

Queen Mother Champion Chase heroine Put The Kettle On is among Altior’s potential rivals in the bet365 Celebration Chase at Sandown.

Having missed out on bidding for a hat-trick in the Champion Chase for the second year in succession following a late setback, Nicky Henderson’s Altior looks set to round off his campaign by bidding for a fourth win in the final Grade One of the season on Saturday.

The 11-year-old might not have things all his own way, however, with Henry de Bromhead’s mare Put The Kettle On set to be in opposition.

Aidan Coleman celebrates at Cheltenham with Put The Kettle On
Aidan Coleman celebrates at Cheltenham with Put The Kettle On (David Davies/Jockey Club)

The Stowaway mare claimed her second Festival success in the Champion Chase last month, following on from her victory in the Arkle Trophy 12 months earlier.

De Bromhead could also saddle Ornua, while Paul Nicholls has a couple of hopefuls in Dolos and Greaneteen.

Another leading contender is Dan Skelton’s Nube Negra, who inflicted a shock defeat on Altior in the Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton earlier in the season, before finishing second to Put The Kettle On at Cheltenham.

Gary Moore’s Editeur Du Gite, Ann Hamilton’s stable star Nuts Well and Sceau Royal from Alan King’s yard also feature.

Frodon and Tiger Roll could lock horns in the Grade Two bet365 Oaksey Chase.

Tiger Roll could be seen at Sandown on Saturday
Tiger Roll could be seen at Sandown on Saturday (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

Winner of the King George at Kempton, the Nicholls-trained Frodon was last seen finishing an honourable fifth in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, while Tiger Roll was fourth on his latest outing in Aintree’s Betway Bowl.

Grade Two honours are also up for grabs in the bet365 Hurdle, in which Goshen is the headline act.

The five-year-old hung his chance away in the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham last month and connections will be hoping he can bounce back to his best on his return to a right-handed track.

He could be taken on by the last two winners of the race in Call Me Lord and Younevercall, among others.

Shishkin to spearhead ‘solid’ Aintree squad for Henderson

Shishkin is set to lead Nicky Henderson’s squad into battle at next week’s Randox Grand National Festival at Aintree.

The Seven Barrows handler assembled what he views as a “pretty solid team” for the three-day meeting, which did not take place last season because of the coronavirus outbreak.

Henderson admits Aintree will have a very different look to it this year without the usual crowds, but he is nevertheless looking forward to making the trip to Merseyside.

He said: “We’ve had great days at Aintree. It’s always been tremendous fun and everyone is incredibly hospitable.

Nicky Henderson is looking forward to Aintree
Nicky Henderson is looking forward to Aintree (David Davies/PA)

“The atmosphere is great – it’s a bit more relaxed than Cheltenham.

“It’s not going to be the same as normal years, obviously – but it’s enjoyable and I think we’ve got a pretty solid team.”

The undoubted star of the show as far as Henderson is concerned is Shishkin, who extended his unbeaten record over fences to four with a runaway success in the Arkle Trophy at Cheltenham last month.

The seven-year-old will bid to round off his flawless campaign with another Grade One win in the Doom Bar Maghull Novices’ Chase on Saturday week.

“He was very good at Cheltenham. I think it was a relief as much as anything,” Henderson added.

“He was very professional. He has a different jumping technique to some horses – he’s very quick and gets from A to B without you noticing he’s done it.

“This is the obvious place to come. I don’t see there’s any reason to go any further than two miles at the moment as he is a sharp horse.

“He won’t go to Punchestown. Shishkin would finish his season here, I hope.”

Henderson’s pair of Chantry House and Fusil Raffles finished first and second respectively in the Marsh Novices’ Chase at Cheltenham.

Chantry House in action at Cheltenham
Chantry House in action at Cheltenham (David Davies/Jockey Club)

However, they are set to be split at Aintree, with Fusil Raffles sticking to two and a half miles in Thursday’s Sss Super Alloys Manifesto Novices’ Chase and Chantry House stepping up to three miles for the Betway Mildmay Novices’ Chase the following afternoon.

Henderson hopes two of Ireland’s star novice chases, Monkfish and Envoi Allen, will be staying at home, adding: “We’ve read that Monkfish and Envoi Allen are going to take each other on at Punchestown, unless it’s an April Fool!

“I hope they do and we can all go round amongst ourselves at Aintree.”

The multiple champion trainer is planning to step Mister Fisher up in distance for the opening afternoon’s Betway Bowl.

The son of Jeremy, who was pulled up in the Ryanair Chase at Cheltenham, is likely to have plenty on his plate, however.

Mister Fisher is bound for the Betway Bowl
Mister Fisher is bound for the Betway Bowl (Alan Crowhurst/PA)

Henderson said: “We’ve been dying to try him over three miles – it’s always looked exactly what he wanted.

“There’s talk of Tiger Roll running and I gather A Plus Tard may possibly come, so there’s going to be a lot of Irish competition still, although I think we’re all rather hoping a lot of them will stay at home for Punchestown and not travel again!

“It will be a good race, but I think three miles on good ground at Aintree will suit Mister Fisher and I’m keen to run him.”

On the same day, Buveur D’Air will bid for a second win in the Betway Aintree Hurdle.

With connections deciding against bidding for a third Champion Hurdle success at Cheltenham, the 10-year-old will be running for only the second time since suffering a freak hoof injury in the 2019 Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle.

He finished second on his return from over a year off the track at Haydock in January.

“We kept him out of Cheltenham and I think an extra half a mile will help him,” said his trainer.

“He wouldn’t want fast ground, but he’s in very good form and schooled this morning and was as electric as ever.”

Henderson confirmed Heross Du Seuil an intended runner in the Doom Bar Anniversary 4-Y-O Juvenile Hurdle on the opening day, while plans are more fluid for the exciting Dusart, who has not been seen since his hurdling debut at Newbury in November.

Henderson said: “Dusart was very impressive at Newbury. He then had a freak accident and has been missing since. I actually didn’t think we’d get him back at all this season.

“He’s a smart horse, I hope. He could run in the Top Novices’ Hurdle over two miles, the Mersey Novices’ Hurdle over two and a half, or he might just wait for Ayr.

“Ronnie (Bartlett, owner) is coming to see him work on Friday and we’ll decide after that.

“Pipesmoker will almost certainly go for the two-and-a-half-mile race.”

One horse unlikely to be part of the Henderson’s Aintree battalion is Altior.

Having disappointingly missed the Cheltenham Festival for the second year in succession, the 11-year-old looks set to instead head for the Celebration Chase at Sandown, which he has already won three times

Nicky Henderson with Altior
Nicky Henderson with Altior (David Davies/PA)

“He will do a bit of work this weekend, but it will be his first since the dirty scope that meant he missed Cheltenham,” said Henderson.

“I’m wouldn’t rule Aintree out, but I think it’s more likely he’ll wait for the Celebration.”

Asked whether he expected Altior to return next season, he added: “I hope so – there’s no reason why not.

“He’s as fresh as paint here and in great form.”

While Henderson has famously never won the Randox Grand National, he has won the other big race over the famous fences – the Topham Chase – on five occasions.

This year he plans to run Caribean Boy, Lust For Glory, Morning Vicar and Precious Cargo, saying: “It’s easy going round (the National course) once, but getting round twice is a big problem!

“All four are intended runners. They’ve all schooled over National fences and all went well.”

On The Blind Side and Call Me Lord, meanwhile, could contest the Ryanair Stayers Hurdle on Grand National day.

Cheltenham Festival day two – All eyes on Chacun and Monkfish

Day two of the Cheltenham Festival is headlined by the Queen Mother Champion Chase – the pinnacle of the season for the sport’s most highly-regarded two-mile chasers.

Sadly, Altior is absent for the second year running, meaning this year’s renewal of the Betway-sponsored feature really does centre around the seemingly unstoppable Chacun Pour Soi. It is not a one-horse race, though, and last year’s winner Politologue will have his say – as will Dan Skelton’s Nube Negra, one of the few horses to have beaten Altior when impressing at Kempton over Christmas.

Willie Mullins and Chacun Pour Soi’s owner Rich Ricci team up again with the mighty Monkfish, who has defeated all-comers since winning the Albert Bartlett last season and is all the rage for the Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase.

Wednesday is also the home of the Glenfarclas Cross Country Chase, where Tiger Roll will line up for what could be his final race and the French raider Easysland will bid for a second successive triumph over the unique course.

The afternoon’s action is rounded off by the Weatherbys Champion Bumper, a race that provides a glimpse into the future as the next generation of National Hunt performers compete on the level for Grade One honours.

Bob Olinger another for dream team?

Bob Olinger is a strong contender for Ballymore honours
Bob Olinger is a strong contender for Ballymore honours (PA)

Bob Olinger tops the line-up for the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle, with the six-year-old bringing Grade One form to the table after winning the Lawlor’s of Naas Novice Hurdle on his last appearance. Trained by Henry de Bromhead and ridden by Rachael Blackmore, he will have an army of supporters. His chief rival is the Mullins-trained Gaillard Du Mesnil, who was also a Grade One winner last time out when triumphing at Leopardstown. Bravemansgame flies the flag for Paul Nicholls and heads to Prestbury Park off the back of an impressive 10-length Challow Novices’ Hurdle victory.

Monkfish riding the crest of a wave

Monkfish has been imperious over fences so far
Monkfish has been imperious over fences so far (PA)

Monkish takes centre stage in the the Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase after a hugely impressive performance when winning the Flogas Novice Chase at Leopardstown. The victory was the chestnut’s sixth consecutive win and his suitability for the Cheltenham track was proven when he triumphed in the Albert Bartlett last year. He has scared off most of the opposition and the race looks his to lose.

Champion Pour Soi?

Paul Townend and Chacun Pour Soi at Leopardstown

The Ricci silks will be worn by the favourite again when the runners face the starter in the Queen Mother Champion Chase. This time it will be Chacun Pour Soi who carries his owner’s hopes as he bids to follow up his success in the Dublin Chase at Leopardstown – his fourth Grade One win over fences. Politilogue is defending his crown, while First Flow – who beat him at Ascot – would be a hugely popular winner for trainer Kim Bailey and jockey David Bass.

Will the Tiger stop rolling?

Easysland on his way to an impressive victory in the Glenfarclas Chase last year
Easysland on his way to an impressive victory in the Glenfarclas Chase last year (Andrew Matthews/PA)

Easysland travels from David Cottin’s French stable to attempt to retain his cross-country crown, a trophy he took from two-time winner Tiger Roll when prevailing by 17 lengths last year. Tiger Roll is also back, and his performance is likely to determine whether this is his last race. Hopefully that will not be the case, as this titan of the jumping scene deserves to bow in front of packed grandstands, not empty ones.

Mullins’ mighty bumper duo

Kilcruit is favourite to give Willie Mullins another Champion Bumper victory
Kilcruit is favourite to give Willie Mullins another Champion Bumper victory (Niall Carson/PA)

Mullins is synonymous with the Champion Bumper and has two major chances in Kilcruit and Sir Gerhard, the latter being a new addition to the yard after leaving the stable of Gordon Elliott. He is unbeaten and represents Cheveley Park Stud, who have won the last two runnings, most recently with the Mullins-trained Ferny Hollow. For his part, Kilcruit was completely dominant when winning the Grade Two bumper at the Dublin Racing Festival by 12 lengths.

Altior to miss Champion Chase

Altior has been ruled out of the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase at the 11th hour for a second successive year.

Nicky Henderson’s 11-year-old, who has won the race twice previously as well as the Arkle and the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, coughed after exercise on Monday.

The veteran has made it to the track just twice since November 2019, when he met with his first defeat over obstacles at the hands of Cyrname.

Altior was forced to miss last year’s Queen Mother with a splint, which emerged the weekend before the race.

Henderson released the news via a statement on Twitter, which read: “We are very sorry that we have taken the decision not to run Altior in the Champion Chase on Wednesday.

“He coughed after exercise this morning, which caused us to scope him, and as a result of what we have seen it would not be sensible to run him.”

Elaborating on what had occurred at Seven Barrows on Monday morning, Henderson said: “It’s desperate news, you wouldn’t believe it could happen two years running.

“His work and everything last week was fantastic – he schooled like he always does. His work on Friday was as good as I’ve seen, and there’s no doubt the cheekpieces we’d put on him had done the trick – they’d really sharpened him up.

“It was just routine this morning. His work was all done, (so) two routine canters this morning and then he would have had a blow the day before. But he coughed coming in.

“We always scope them on a Monday morning anyway, so the vets were here. We thought we’d better scope him, and you could see it. It’s unreal – we’re absolutely devastated for the Pughs (owners).

“I can honestly say this horse was back, and I was looking forward to him as much as any horse. I was so confident that he was himself – and then this happens. You couldn’t run him – it wouldn’t be fair to anyone, because it would only end in tears.”

Henderson was given Altior’s results just after 10am.

He added: “From what we were seeing on the scope, you couldn’t have run him – but once the sample was taken to the lab, you could see in the results that he has an infection. We can see what’s wrong now.

“It’s unbelievable to hit it now. We’ve had a few things going on through the winter like this, but luckily the last three weeks have been really good. This is the one horse who hasn’t had anything wrong with him – and he goes and gets it now.

“On Friday we did the last bits of work – they’d schooled on Thursday, and I could not have been happier with the whole lot. He was 100 per cent last week, but he’s not now. The results show what the scope indicated. It was too significant to run, just off the scope, but the figures have confirmed it.

“It appears we are dealing with bacterial infection rather than a viral infection.

“It’s cruel on everybody. There certainly wasn’t anything wrong with him on Friday, so it’s a recent thing. For it to happen two years running is cruel for the owners.

“We might get him back for something this season yet.”

Altior to wear cheekpieces in Champion Chase

Altior will sport first-time cheekpieces as he bids to regain his Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase title at next week’s Cheltenham Festival.

The 11-year-old secured the second of his back-to-back victories in the two-mile showpiece in 2019, but has endured mixed fortunes subsequently – losing his unbeaten record over obstacles when stepped up in distance in November of that year, before his Festival run last spring was scuppered by injury.

Altior returned to action over Christmas with a second place at Kempton, and trainer Nicky Henderson felt his jumping that day was not quite up to scratch – hence the application of headgear when he lines up at Prestbury Park on Wednesday.

Henderson told Unibet: “It did occur to us that his jumping, in particular at Kempton, wasn’t as deadly as it should be. If you see him here schooling, you won’t see anything faster or quicker.

“We are going to put some cheekpieces on him. It is something that we have discussed for a long time over the last few weeks since Kempton.

“The race is going to be fast and furious, (so) he has got to be just that little bit sharper.

“I think they will help particularly over the first three fences, which they will go quick (at), and he has got to be there with them. He also sometimes has a little bit of a flat spot, two or three furlongs out.

“We did some work with him the other day, and (jockey) Nico (de Boinville)felt it made a nice difference, so that is what we are going to do. If he can get some decent ground, and the cheekpieces do their bit, he is in good form.”

Henderson also plans to furnish Santini with headgear in Friday’s WellChild Cheltenham Gold Cup, as he tries to improve on last year’s close second to Al Boum Photo.

The trainer wrote on Twitter: “Santini schooled with some headgear on yesterday, and I can confirm he will wear a visor in the Gold Cup.”

Masterful Henderson well-versed in potential Cheltenham pitfalls

For Nicky Henderson, the pressure of having horses at the Cheltenham Festival is not on the day but in the build-up.

His job is to get his team to the four biggest days in the jumps calendar in the best possible shape.

No one knows better than the master of Seven Barrows, who is the most successful UK trainer with 68 winners – the first coming way back in 1985.

He has good chances in four of the main events this year, with past winners Epatante and Buveur D’Air giving him a strong hand in the Unibet Champion Hurdle, Shishkin aiming to join the Seven Barrows trainer’s good record in the Sporting Life Arkle Trophy, Altior trying to regain his Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase crown and Champ and Santini two hopes of giving him a third WellChild Cheltenham Gold Cup.

Nicky Henderson with his major Cheltenham Festival runners (left to right) Champ, Altior, Shishkin, Epatante and Santini
Nicky Henderson with his major Cheltenham Festival runners (left to right) Champ, Altior, Shishkin, Epatante and Santini (David Davies/PA)

“The pressure bit is what we’re doing at home. It’s getting them there,” he said.

“It’s not so much what happens on the day, the last few weeks are an uncomfortable time. There are so many things that can go wrong.

“You’ve got to get it absolutely right. There are banana skins everywhere, and that is what we’re all nervous about – things that go wrong with your big boys.

“That puts us under pressure.”

The unpredictable British weather has not made life easy, either.

“The weather has been very variable. We’ve had as wet a winter as you can remember and a complete week of a freeze-up,” he said.

“It hasn’t been easy, and we’ve had a few difficult times with the horses themselves. There have been little patches when I haven’t been totally happy, but at the end of the day it’s coming together.

“We’ve had to change our preparations a bit. There was obviously the moving of the Newbury meeting, which changed our plans quite a bit, and we’ve had to improvise quite a lot.

“We’d normally take quite a big squad to Kempton to gallop on the all-weather a fortnight before Cheltenham, but we’ve not been able to do that this year, which has changed our run-up plans.”

Despite the pressures and inevitable mishaps, the Henderson string will be a force to be reckoned with from day one – starting with high hopes in the Arkle and Champion Hurdle.

Nicky Henderson with his Arkle Trophy hope Shishkin
Nicky Henderson with his Arkle Trophy hope Shishkin (David Davies/PA)

Shishkin bids to join Henderson’s elite band of Arkle Trophy winners which include Remittance Man, Sprinter Sacre and Altior.

His task has been made a little easier with the withdrawal of the Willie Mullins-trained Energumene, although Allmankind still presents a potent threat.

“It’s amazing how this race has gone from about three or four weeks ago, when Shishkin was odds on and everybody said it was going to be boring,” he said.

“I think Allmankind was impressive again at Warwick. Now there’s a real fight, and people are seeing it as one of the big headline clashes of the week. He’s got a real battle on his hands.”

Despite the absence of Energumene, there will still be a formidable battalion of Irish raiders for Henderson and the British team to cope with – a factor he is very mindful of, especially after watching the Dublin Racing Festival, where Mullins in particular was unstoppable.

He said: “They just came up with another blockbuster. You suddenly think ‘crikey, I thought I was going to win that’ and all of a sudden Willie has come up with something and what are we going to do now? We’ve got to do our best, it’s been the same for a few years.

Willie Mullins and Paul Townend will be a big threat to Nicky Henderson's hopes at Cheltenham
Willie Mullins and Paul Townend will be a big threat to Nicky Henderson’s hopes at Cheltenham (Tim Goode/PA)

“That scoreboard that is down at the bottom of the parade ring, when it’s got the English and the Irish flag and the numbers – it’s pretty daunting when the score is 11-5 or something. Then you feel you are fighting a losing battle, but I’m not going into this thinking we’re fighting a losing battle.

“We’ve got a lot of very good chances. We thought Shishkin was a pretty good banker to go into last year, and Altior was always in that situation. Sprinter was always in that situation – you always had something you hoped you could hang your hat on, whatever happened.

“You always say you’ll settle for one, and I mean it more than ever this year, because I think it’s going to be tougher than ever.”

Henderson has won the Champion Hurdle three times in the last four years, with Buveur D’Air (2017 and 2018) and Epatante (2020). The pair represent him again – but both have to come back from defeats.

“Epatante was disappointing at Kempton because she was very good in the Fighting Fifth. She wasn’t herself in the Christmas Hurdle,” he said.

“Obviously, she’s better than that. I think we’re back in the right place now.

“She looks wonderful. If we’ve got her back she’s got as good a chance as any.

“The ground at Haydock found Buveur D’Air out. I thought we were going to get to the winner, but he emptied a bit. He was entitled to get a bit tired after his time off – but it did him good, and he’s in good shape.”

On day two, Altior will attempt to reclaim thr Champion Chase crown he made his own in 2017 and 2018.

“It hasn’t been easy. Having been invincible, it hasn’t gone his way,” said Henderson.

Altior bids to regain his Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase crown
Altior bids to regain his Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase crown (Paul Harding/PA)

“He is 11 now and he’s done very little wrong. One or two things have conspired against him.

Should Altior defy the odds then he would go close to matching the achievement of Sprinter Sacre, who overcame several problems to win a second Champion Chase in 2016 – three years after his first.

“With Sprinter – that was a miracle. I don’t think you could hope for two miracles, but this one would be very special if he could because he’s been a fantastic horse,” said Henderson.

Henderson named Sprinter Sacre’s second Champion Chase triumph as his most memorable day at Cheltenham.

“We’ve been very lucky. We’ve had some great days. You go back to See You Then (with three Champion Hurdle wins in the 1980s). I was wet behind the ears, it was so long ago, but I can remember it,” he said.

“I think you have to say, and a lot of people who were there on the day would say, Sprinter’s comeback in the Champion Chase was the most memorable day of my Cheltenham days … probably any day. It was an extraordinary scene.

Sprinter Sacre gave Nicky Henderson his most special moment at the Cheltenham Festival
Sprinter Sacre gave Nicky Henderson his most special moment at the Cheltenham Festival (Simon Cooper/PA)

“The public welcome and everything was unforgettable. It was very special.”

Long Run (2011) and Bobs Worth (2013) are Henderson’s two Gold Cup winners. He looks to Champ and Santini to give him a third.

Champ’s late surge to land the RSA Insurance Chase last year makes the trainer believe he will stay the distance.

“That was an extraordinary performance,” he said.

“It was sort of reminiscent of dear old Might Bite, where you thought he was out of it and not going to feature and from the second last to the last he was dropping back.

“It looked as though he was going to finish a moderate third jumping the last. I was focusing on those up front, and all of a sudden he came back into sight and swept past them – which proves an important thing, stamina.”

Champ on his way to the gallops at Nicky Henderson’s yard
Champ on his way to the gallops at Nicky Henderson’s yard (David Davies/PA)

Santini was runner-up in 2020 but has to bounce back from defeats in all his three starts of this campaign.

“He’s had a difficult season,” said Henderson, who is saddened there will be no crowds because of Covid-19 restrictions but delighted the meeting is going ahead.

“It’s going to be very strange, because we are going to be sitting or standing and suffering throughout the build-up to the races on our own, with no owners and nobody to talk to and nobody to hold each other’s hands,” he said.

“It’s very sad that we’re not going to have the people there to share it with us – but it’s terrific that we’re racing, and that’s the most important thing.

“Television comes into its own, and we’ll show the world everything we’ve got.”

Chacun Pour Soi and Altior on course for Queen Mother showdown

Red-hot favourite Chacun Pour Soi and dual winner Altior are among 11 confirmations for the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase.

Chacun Pour Soi was well-fancied to provide Willie Mullins with an elusive first victory in the feature event on day two of the Cheltenham Festival last season, only to be withdrawn on the morning of the race after suffering a setback.

Having won each of his three starts since – most recently dominating his rivals in the Dublin Chase at Leopardstown last month – the nine-year-old is all the rage to set the record straight 12 months on.

Mullins has also left in recent Grade Two winner Cilaos Emery.

Nicky Henderson with Altior
Nicky Henderson with Altior (David Davies/PA)

The Nicky Henderson-trained Altior, winner of the Champion Chase in 2018 and 2019, also missed out last season due to injury.

However, at the age of 11, he will return to the Cotswolds with something to prove after a lethargic display on his only previous start this season in the Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton.

Henderson has raised the possibility of Altior being fitted with cheekpieces for the first time to aid his bid to become only the second horse to win three Champion Chases, after Badsworth Boy in the 1980s.

Dan Skelton has been making positive noises about Nube Negra, who inflicted that shock defeat on Altior at Kempton.

The Paul Nicholls-trained Politologue is on course to defend his crown – and is likely to be joined by stablemate Greaneteen.

Henry de Bromhead is set to saddle last year’s Arkle heroine Put The Kettle On, as well as Notebook.

Champion Hurdle, Gold Cup and Grand National-winning trainer Kim Bailey would dearly love to add a Champion Chase victory his CV – and has high hopes for First Flow following his brilliant display in the Clarence House at Ascot.

Alan King’s Sceau Royal and Rouge Vif from Harry Whittington’s yard are the other hopefuls.

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.

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.

“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.

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.

“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.”

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.”