He’s a winning machine on the brink of equalling a modern-day winning sequence — so why has three-time Cheltenham Festival winner Altior yet to fully capture the public imagination?
After all, sustained excellence is the mark of a true champion and one must revisit the 2015 Punchestown Festival to find the last time Nicky Henderson’s charge suffered a defeat.
That afternoon he was sent off at 14/1 for the Champion INH Flat Race, where he finished a one-paced sixth behind the likes of Bellshill, Disko, and Modus.
He made his first start over obstacles the following October, winning a modest novice hurdle at Chepstow by 34 lengths at odds of 5-6.
Two narrow successes followed before Altior ended 2015 with a 13-length victory at Kempton on St Stephen’s Day.
Henderson then opted to go straight to the Festival where Altior lined up in what proved to be one of the hottest Supreme battles ever run at Cheltenham.
Given he saddled the winner of the Festival opener in each of the previous three years it was no surprise that punters steamed into the Willie Mullins-trained Min, sending him off the 15/8 favourite. But come the moment the truth, Min had no answer to Altior’s explosive finishing kick, the 4/1 shot crossing the line seven lengths to the good.
How good was that Supreme? Buveur D’Air, now bidding to become only the sixth horse to win the Champion Hurdle three times, could only manage third. That’s how good.
Min was one of four Mullins-trained hotpots that day and after Douvan (Arkle Trophy), Annie Power (Champion Hurdle), and Vroum Vroum Mag (OLBG Mares’ Hurdle) all justified short-priced favouritism it was perhaps inevitable that praise for the horse who thwarted a Closutton four-timer was more respectful than glowing.
That was that as far as hurdles were concerned and Altior began life over fences in the same devastating manner as he had dealt with smaller obstacles, trashing a future Grade One winner in Black Corton by 63 lengths in a two-runner novice chase at Kempton.
Three bloodless wins followed before Altior rocked up for the Arkle Trophy at the Festival.
The 1-4 favourite made it 10 wins on the bounce but victory was achieved only after Charbel fell when leading at the second last. Replays suggested Altior was going the better of the two before Charbel’s demise but there could be no arguing that this was a workmanlike rather than sparkling display.
Victory in the Celebration Chase at Sandown ended the season on a high but an operation meant it would be 287 days before Altior saw action again. His Champion Chase prep race would come in a Newbury Grade Two where Politologue, a horse who had made hay in the two-miledivision in Altior’s absence, lay in wait.
Henderson feared his ring-rusty charge would be vulnerable but Altior tracked Politologue before challenging at the last and going away for a four-length victory. Order looked to have been restored.
All was well until 48 hours before the Champion Chase when Altior was found to be lame. His Festival participation now hung in the balance.
He was eventually given the go-ahead but that 11th hour scare, tacky ground, and uncertainty surrounding Douvan’s form meant that Altior was sent off an uneasy even-money favourite.
Those that kept the faith had plenty of reason to feel queasy during the race, even after Douvan crashed out at the fourth last.
Altior hit several flat spots and was only fourth as the field approached the second from home. But, by the last, he was locked in battle with old foe Min and, just he had in the Supreme two years earlier, Altior devoured the hill to win going away.
The winning margin? Seven lengths. Just as it had been in 2016.
Given his interrupted campaign, his late injury scare, and the trouble he met in running it was undoubtedly an awesome display.
But within 48 hours, the equine performance of the week was relegated to a supporting tale as the racing world revelled in the glow of that epic Gold Cup duel between Native River and Might Bite.
The plaudits that had flowed so generously after Sprinter Sacre’s emotional second Champion Chase success in 2016 would not be repeated for his Seven Barrows successor.
Admittedly, the issues Altior faced last season were not remotely comparable to the heart problems Sprinter Sacre endured but it was still a test of his toughness, one he passed with flying courses.
He returns to Festival for a fourth time, having added three more wins to a sequence that now stands at 17 not out.
Victory on Wednesday will bring him level with the record accumulated by four-time Stayers’ Hurdle winner Big Buck’s — another curiously respected rather than loved serial winner — but unless he crashes to a shock defeat it’s hard to see him being the headline story come the week’s end.
So why the public indifference?
The obvious comparison is with Sprinter Sacre, a horse recently voted the greatest two-mile chaser ever in aRacing Post poll. It’s fair to say that Altior, eighth in the list, lacks the flamboyant swagger so routinely displayed by his predecessor before his heart trouble. He also lacks the compelling comeback story that sealed Sprinter Sacre’s legend.
A second Champion Chase win this week probably won’t alter how Altior is perceived but a dominant win should at least see him reclaim his rightful place as the highest-rated National Hunt horse in training, a position he absurdly lost to runaway Ascot Chase winner Cyrname last month.
Beyond this week, Henderson has hinted he may step Altior up in trip next season with the King George a potential target. Should he prove himself equally effective over three miles, the Gold Cup will surely be his target at next year’s Festival.
Win both and respect may finally turn to love.