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 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.”