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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.”

First Flow building towards Champion Chase

Kim Bailey is gradually building First Flow back to his peak for a crack at the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase at Cheltenham.

The nine-year-old has had a relatively easy time since booking his place in the two-mile showpiece with last month’s victory over reigning champion Politologue in the Grade One Clarence House Chase at Ascot.

With the Champion Chase now less than five weeks away, Bailey is preparing First Flow for the big day.

“He’s good. He’s started cantering this week, so I’m happy with him,” said the Cotswolds trainer.

“I won’t be taking him for an away day. He’s an easy horse to get fit.”

First Flow is a top-priced 14-1 for Festival honours, with Chacun Pour Soi a shade of odds-on after extending his unbeaten season to date with an impressive victory in the Dublin Chase at Leopardstown on Sunday.

It was another eyecatching performance from Willie Mullins’ charge, for which he has rightly been lauded – but all Bailey and others can do is prepare their contenders for the challenge ahead.

Asked for his reading of Chacun Pour Soi’s latest win, Bailey said: “I don’t think I need add to the accolades people have given him.

“Getting our horse there in one piece is the most important thing.”

Nicholls focusing on Champion Chase defence with Politologue

Paul Nicholls has taken Politologue’s defeat at Ascot on the chin and will now prepare the grey for the defence of his Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase crown.

The Ditcheat handler was happy with the run of Politologue and just felt he was “beaten by a better horse on the day” when going down by seven lengths to First Flow in the Clarence House Chase.

John Hales’ 10-year-old will head straight to the Cheltenham Festival without another run.

“No excuses, he got beat by a better horse on the day. He ran a good, solid race, he galloped all the way to the line. I’m very happy with him,” said Nicholls.

“He’s fine. All is well with him.

“He won’t run again before the Champion Chase.”

Nicholls was delighted with the way Yala Enki overcame a bad mistake at the fourth-last fence to win the Portman Cup for the second year running at Taunton.

The 11-year-old had led to that point but lost the lead to If The Cap Fits, before he rallied in tremendous fashion for Bryony Frost to regain the advantage between the last two fences and score by five lengths.

Yala Enki won for the second successive year at Taunton despite making a bad mistake at a crucial stage of the race
Yala Enki won for the second successive year at Taunton despite making a bad mistake at a crucial stage of the race (David Davies/PA)

“He did well to recover from his mistake. He galloped on strongly,” said Nicholls.

“He’s fresh and well today. I’ve made no plans for him.

“Obviously it was nice race to win with him. He’s a proper horse.”

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.”