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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.