Had events unfolded the way Nicky Henderson hoped at the start of the season Altior would not be running in the Grade Two Win Bigger On The Betfair Exchange Chase at Newbury this afternoon.
Had he stretched his unbeaten record to an astonishing 20 races by beating Cyrname at Ascot in November, Altior would probably have lined up the short-priced favourite for the King George.
And if he passed that test the temptation to go for the big one, the Cheltenham Gold Cup, would surely have proven irresistible.
Alas, it wasn’t to be.
Altior came off second best in his eagerly-awaited head-to-head with Cyrname, a gruelling duel that ended Henderson’s brave experiment.
And while Altior has been recovering, Henderson has had to watch on as new challengers have emerged as would-be two-mile kings.
Defi Du Seuil had already put down an early marker when scoring at Cheltenham on his seasonal reappearance a week before Altior’s bruising Ascot experience and the new kid on the block has since won both the Tingle Creek and the Victor Chandler, a Grade One double that has propelled him to Champion Chase favouritism.
Last week Chacun Pour Soi threw his hat into the ring, taking a big step forward from a disappointing display at Christmas to beat stablemate Min in the Dublin Chase at Leopardstown.
In doing so, he emerged as a real contender.
Today, the pressure is on Altior because if he can’t account for his nine rivals in a race better known as the Game Spirit he won’t be completing a Champion Chase hat-trick next month.
In Sceau Royal, the returning Dynamite Dollars, and Kalashnikov, Altior faces some useful rivals but the vibes around Altior have been particularly positive this week so it’ll rank as a big surprise if he fails to get back to winning ways.
Whether he can see off Defi Du Seuil and Chacun Pour Soi on March 11 is another question entirely.
If Altior has given Henderson cause for worry this season, Might Bite must have had him pulling his hair out.
Two years ago, Might Bite and Native River served up a truly glorious Cheltenham duel, trading blows in a Gold Cup for the ages before Colin Tizzard’s charge finally got the better of the argument after the last fence.
Both have struggled since but Native River has at least run creditably in defeat and he got a nice confidence booster when cruising to victory at Aintree on his only start this season, a race in which Might Bite unseated jockey Nico de Boinville at the fourth fence.
In a bid to get his confidence back, Henderson then sent Might Bite over hurdles at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day but, having travelled well through much of the race, the son of Scorpion threw in the towel the moment the going got tough.
And given he’s more likely to be pulled up than win, it’s hard to see past Native River in today’s Betfair Denman Chase.
Native River won this Grade Two before winning the 2018 Gold Cup but, while it’s hard to see him completing the same double this year, part one should be a relatively straightforward task.
The Game Spirit and the Denman Chase may be key races as Cheltenham moves tantalisingly into view but today’s main betting heat is undoubtedly the Grade Three Betfair Hurdle.
Just the 24 of them to sift through here and, unsurprisingly, a case could be made for several, a list that would have to include the front-running Not So Sleepy, the headstrong Never Adapt, and Irish raider Ciel De Neige, who look a big player for Willie Mullins.
However, preference is for the Evan Williams-trained Mack The Man, who looks the best handicapped horse in the line-up.
The selection is two from two this season and Lightly Squeeze and Protektorat, Mack The Man’s immediate victims in Warwick and Sandown, are rated far higher now having won four races between them since.
Mack The Man’s mark has obviously gone up as well but a rating of 130 means he has squeezed in at the foot of the weights.
With the form of his wins looking so strong and with the Williams team in such cracking form at the minute, a huge run can be anticipated.
The Betfair Bet In-Play Handicap Hurdle looks a tricky affair but the drying ground should suit Anytime Will Do so Dan Skelton’s charge gets the tentative nod.
Warwick’s headline act is the Grade Two Agetur UK Kingmaker Novices’ Chase and Nube Negra, who found only Esprit Du Large too good in the Grade One in the Henry VIII Novices’ Chase at Sandown in December, should get back to winning ways.
Elsewhere at Warwick, Legends Gold gets the vote in the Paddy Power 31 Sleeps To Cheltenham Mares’ Hurdle while Belami Des Pictons looks the one to be on in the Paddy Power From The Horses Mouth Warwick Castle Handicap Chase.
Anytime Will Do
Nube Negra (NB)
Belami Des Pictons
Mack The Man (Nap)