A week and a season that was far from ideal for Altior turned around dramatically when he extended his perfect record over obstacles to 14 with a brilliant display in the Betway Champion Chase.
Horses of this ilk shouldn’t come around very often, but the eight-year-old, winner of the Arkle Chase and the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle in his two previous visits to the Festival, is hot on the heels of former stable-companion Sprinter Sacre, twice a winner of this race and widely acknowledged as one of the great two-mile chasers.
After a wind operation allowed just one prep run, turning out lame on Monday morning was another hiccup connections didn’t need, but that didn’t matter to Altior’s legion of supporters, who obliged the layers who wished to take him on at odds against.
Much like the season itself, the race wasn’t plain sailing for the even-money chance, but once again he came through like the star he is.
Douvan looked to be thoroughly enjoying himself in front and put in some prodigious leaps before changing his mind too late at the fourth-last fence and paying the price.
At that point, Altior began to come under pressure, while Min and Ordinary World travelled strongly, with
Politologue and God’s Own still heavily involved.
Min, under a confident ride by Paul Townend, turned for home going best of all, and the pair jumped the second-last in front. By this stage, however, Altior had been switched outside and was beginning to roll for Nico De Boinville.
He touched down at the last just a neck behind Min and, as previously, put his head down and devoured the hill to put seven lengths between himself and his gallant rival, with God’s Own a long way back in third.
For Henderson, who won his seventh Champion Hurdle on Tuesday, it was a fifth victory in the race, and he was not shy about offering favourable comparisons with 2013 and 2016 winner Sprinter Sacre.
“If we had been beaten I wouldn’t have used a sore foot as an excuse,” joked Henderson. “It’s been a tough season and he’s been missing out on races, but he’s so good — he’s just got gears, and Nico was great because they were going a good gallop and he kept calm.
“To watch the horse do that, well, he was electric. In behind he wasn’t doing that much but getting lots of cover and getting a very cool ride. For a second he looked in trouble and I thought ‘this isn’t going to happen’, but as soon as he saw daylight he knew where he was going.
“To find those gears in that ground off that pace, you have to be pretty good. It was a great race on paper, and I’m glad to hear that Douvan and Charbel (who fell) are alright.
“We’ve been lucky enough to be down this road many times and it’s 90% relief and 10% joy.
“It’s funny how champions come around in the same breath, but I feel they help each other — if you have good horses they make good horses. But everyone at home has worked so hard this season during all the weather. I’ve got a really good team who have done everything.
“It’s strange that Altior has come around so soon after Sprinter Sacre. This horse is very, very good, and I always said he had very big shoes to fill, but each time he wins he gets closer to doing that.
“We will never forget Sprinter, who tugged at heartstrings in a way this horse might never do, but if he wins again he might. Sprinter was such a show-off and a swank, and he won this race by a distance, although I’m not sure he beat horses as good as the runners in today’s race.”
The winning rider was similarly effusive about his mount, who became the fifth horse to win three different races at consecutive Cheltenham Festivals.
“He is exceptional — the best of the best,” said De Boinville. “That was just sensational. What a superstar he is, and boy am I lucky to ride him. I know he has those gears at the end of a race. He’s a freak.
“I was in serious trouble the whole way around. He was hating the ground. This ground would be the worst he has ever had — it is so dead and tacky.
“They’ve gone a true gallop and it was a true test. They kicked on and I had to sit in behind and wait, and he is some horse to get me out of trouble. His jumping kept him in the race.”
De Boinville, who won the Gold Cup on Coneygree and was on board Sprinter Sacre for one of his Champion Chase victories, wasn’t keen to make comparison between his two winners of this race.
“He and Sprinter Sacre are very different horses,” he added. “Sprinter always did the best of his work between three out and two out, whereas Altior does it at the end, so you can afford to hold on a bit longer with him.
“But I just love the way he goes straight to the line there. It’s quite hard to peg them back in ground like this but with his turn of foot he’s done it like a hot knife through butter.
“You could step him up to two and a half and he would still be winning. We will have to see how he has come out of the race because he has had a hard race there — I think they all have. And it was a great training performance to come back from the scare two days ago. I am very lucky to be associated with the stable I am.”
Willie Mullins was delighted with the performance of runner-up Min, and most encouraged by the enthusiasm shown by Douvan.
“That was a huge performance by the winner,” said Mullins, who had two winners on the day, to add to Tuesday’s three.
“I’m delighted with Min. He came with that I thought was a winning run, but Altior found another gear when I thought he looked beaten. He flew up the hill and we were going away from the third horse.”
Of Douvan, he added: “He crashed out early enough, but I thought he had done enough to show he was back to himself. He was absolutely cantering, jumping great and I thought he was jumping so well and then he over-jumpeg and just caught the top of it. Maybe there will be Punchestown for him.”
Henderson brought Sprinter Sacre for a successful raid of Punchestown in 2013. Could he be tempted to bring Altior over for another clash with Douvan? That alone would be worth the admission fee.
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