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.
“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.”
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’.”
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.”
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.”