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.
“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 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.
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.
“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.”