The weekend just gone in Britain and Ireland should have been one where performances on the track dominated headlines, but unfortunately that was not to be.
Altior being declared a non-runner in the Tingle Creek; the farcical running in dense fog of the John Durkan Memorial Punchestown Chase; and on a much lesser scale, Aintree failing to update their Going Stick from 2.30pm on Friday afternoon for one of the track’s premier meetings on Saturday, after consistent rain; take your pick, there was much to be disappointed with.
People will read the above and are already decrying the observations of negativity, when there was still much good to talk about on the track itself, but the world of horse racing isn’t all sunshine and smiling faces and to not comment on the Altior debacle on Saturday would do this wonderful sport a disservice; and let’s be honest, it was another sorry story in the great horse’s recent career.
Sadly, this past 13 months or so, Altior’s headlines off the track have superseded what he has achieved on it. ‘AltiBore’ and ‘AltiSnore’ are now just some of the references to one of the greatest horses of this era. Okay, it’s all a bit of childish humour meant in good spirits, but some fans have become jaded with the ‘excuses’ of Altior missing big races, and Saturday was another one.
Not one open-minded or empathetic racing fan would be critical if horses miss engagements for legitimate reasons, but when high-profile performers duck Grade 1 contests because of a lack of sporting endeavor from their human connections, that irks.
Why? Because the sport of horse racing is, who knew, about horses racing and the higher you go up the class ladder, the more important this becomes. Some will say that’s not right, but that’s life. Always has been the way. And always will. It’s all part and parcel of having the privilege of training a top-class horse, and in Altior’s case, a superstar.
Altior missing Saturday’s Tingle Creek was not only an example of Nicky Henderson lacking sporting endeavour pre-Cheltenham Festival, but also the Master of Seven Barrows – and maybe his team – clearly misjudging ground conditions at Sandown.
Henderson declaring Altior a non-runner late on Friday evening was a premature call and it robbed racing – and its fans – of seeing one of National Hunt’s stars in one of National Hunt’s most iconic races.
It maybe also robbed Altior of winning another Grade 1 race. Who knows what will happen down the line, but the 10yo may well never get as good a chance – an odds-on chance – to add an eleventh top-level success.
The official reason given for Altior missing the Tingle Creek was the going. According to Nicky Henderson in an interview with Lydia Hislop on RTV post-racing on Saturday, the ground on the chase course at Sandown was ‘heavy’. We are all entitled to opinions in this world, but Henderson’s assertion of heavy going couldn’t be any further from the truth, and was frankly wrong, based on objective evidence.
First of all, pre-racing on Saturday, the official going description for the chase track given by Sandown Clerk of the Course Andrew Cooper – one of the finest at his jobs in Britain - was ‘Soft – Good to Soft in places’ with a Going Stick reading of 6.4. Interestingly, when Altior won the 2018 Tingle Creek against Un De Sceaux, pre-racing, the official going was ‘Soft’, with a Going Stick reading of 5.4.
Henderson suggesting the ground was heavy on the back of the above was a touch insulting to Cooper and his team. If anyone is going to know the ground at Sandown, it is Andrew Cooper.
Henderson also said to Lydia Hislop is their RTV interview, ‘I’m looking after the horse, that’s my job’ – we all know that Nicky and you do a great job doing so, with all your horses – but Andrew Cooper’s job is to look after the ground at Sandown and you completely ignored the expert, objective advice of a highly experienced man.
As the Saturday progressed, Cooper proved fully justified in his going report, as time analysis studied by Simon Rowlands of both the Henry VIII Novices' Chase and Tingle Creek Chase indicated the Sandown chase track was indeed nowhere near heavy, and according to Rowlands, ‘Good to Soft (soft in places)’.
Do any of us really think Good to Soft (soft in places) ground is a hindrance to Altior, or that kind of ground would 'bottom' him? I would argue, at this time of year, it was the perfectly suitable surface for the two-time Champion Chaser to start his season. Okay, Henderson may say the ground was tacky, but rarely do horses line-up for races with every, little single variable in their favour.
Just 35 minutes before the Tingle Creek, a 4yo horse of Dan Skelton’s, Allmankind, put on a spectacle of galloping and jumping around Sandown’s chase course. Are we really going to say that a horse like Altior, a significantly better performer, and likely much bigger and stronger animal, couldn’t do similar, especially after all the bullish reports emanating from Seven Barrows on the lead-up to the Tingle Creek?
The plug was pulled too quick
Part of the frustration of Altior missing the Tingle Creek was how early Nicky Henderson made the call not to run. At 8:46 on Friday evening, the Press Association broke the news that the horse wouldn’t be taking his chance, but if the ground was the problem, why on earth would you make that call before going to the track on Saturday, if you really wanted to run?
I can understand Henderson worrying about the ground - the poor man seems to worry about everything - but surely a better option was to let people know Altior’s participation was in doubt, and have a look at conditions on Saturday?
Henderson told ITV; ‘we even got a weather forecast last night, (to see) that there might even be 2-3mm of rain overnight that would just loosen it (the ground) up a little bit’, but how often can forecasts be wrong? What if rain did fall? It would have made the call not to participate hugely premature, for all, I know, officially, Altior was only taken out of the Tingle Creek at 7.11am on Saturday morning.
The Henry VIII was going to be run 35 minutes before the Tingle Creek. If Henderson had watched that race, and seen the time posted by a 4yo Allmankind, looking at how well he jumped and galloped home, Altior may have taken his chance. Okay, I know a horse’s participation being up in the air half-an-hour before a Grade 1 race is not ideal, but in this instance, connections have given it every chance, especially if they wouldn’t listen to Andrew Cooper.
The problem, for me, was Henderson had three runners at Sandown on Friday, two on the chase course and one on the hurdles track, and they all ran disappointingly. Both Igor and Morning Vicar did stop relatively quickly on the chase course, while Vegas Blue pulled up over hurdles.
Were the three performances the catalyst in putting bigger doubts in Henderson’s mind with regards Altior running in the Tingle Creek? I think so, but these were horses rated 135 (Morning Vicar), 130 (Igor) and 125 (Vegas Blue), not a 172-rated mature chaser with plenty of top-class form on soft, and even heavy ground in the book.
After winning Friday’s Grade 2 Ballymore Winter Novices' Hurdle at Sandown, Nico de Boinville – rider of Altior – was interviewed by Nick Luck on RTV. The piece was conducted after de Boinville had ridden Moring Vicar on the chase track and when asked by Luck about Altior on the ground, he said the following:
‘Altior has run on all sorts of ground, he has never ducked a challenge. We’ll see, he is ten years old, but he hasn’t disappointed us yet. I’ve never come in and said he didn’t handle the ground. We don’t duck challenges with him and I’m sure he’ll turn up and do his best, as usual. He is fresh and well and couldn’t be in better order for tomorrow’.
All the above, certainly contradicts Henderson telling RTV on Saturday, ‘Nico and I left here (Sandown on Friday) under no illusions that we didn’t want to run (Altior on Saturday)’.
From Saturday, it is clear Henderson is still suffering from a 2019 Ascot hangover. Cyranme beating Altior last season in the Christy 1965 Chase (2m5f) still affects the Master of Seven Barrows, and we all suffered through Altior being a non-runner on Saturday because of that.
Henderson still regrets running Altior that November day in Berkshire, saying he should never have run the horse on ground too soft (please see Nico de Boinville’s words above), but to put the blame on the public for that is most unfair.
Henderson said he would’ve been ‘lynched’ if he pulled Altior that day, and while it is fair he likely would have received criticism, I’m afraid the buck stops with you Nicky. If you felt Altior should not have run that day, you should not have run him, but would we have heard all this if Altior won? Again, the ground at Ascot was no excuse.
Pre-Ascot, we all heard about how well Altior was training and schooling - just like last week on the lead-up to the Tingle Creek - but having been turned over by Cyranme, having had a hard race, the sour grapes of “Altior wasn’t fit enough and the ground was too slow” appeared shortly after. If Altior wasn’t fit enough, that is on Nicky Henderson and his team, no one else. Maybe this is partly why he had a tough race, too?
The problem is those at Seven Barrows – just like plenty of the public – didn’t give Cyranme enough respect heading to the 1965 Chase. They thought they would just turn up and have a lovely soft prep ahead of their first main target, the King George VI Chase at Kempton in December.
It all turned into a nightmare, however, as not only was Altior beaten for the first time over obstacles, but he also had a hard race; the most un-Nicky Henderson prep for a big-race target. The bold plan of running in the King George was scraped – another big race ducked with fans again disappointed – and the whole experience likely left more of a mark on Henderson, than Altior himself.
‘After Ascot last year, I just, just, got him back in time for the Game Spirit at Newbury (February). That was two-and-a-half months’ (after Ascot), Henderson told RTV on Saturday, but that simply isn’t true, with regards to just getting him back, because Altior missed two intended engagements at Kempton last season after Ascot, in the Desert Orchid Chase (December 2019) and Silviniaco Conti Chase (January 2020). At Christmas, Altior wasn’t right enough to run in the King George, but a softer race a day later in the Desert Orchid was fine?
Altior missed the former contest above through an abscess on a wither and the latter, at the time, Henderson said he didn’t feel Altior looked his best. No one in their right mind criticized Henderson for missing those two races, because there were legitimate excuses. Certainly, more legitimate than last Saturday’s.
Cheltenham obsession and welfare
‘If I have no horse in March, what is the point?’, Henderson said to RTV on Saturday. This is a race, the Champion Chase, that is run over three months down the line. This just tells you have deep the obsession of Cheltenham runs with Henderson, who, also it shouldn’t be forgotten, complained there were no competitive races for Buveur D'Air pre-Cheltenham after his second Champion Hurdle success in 2018.
I don’t really mind his fixation on March, however, let’s be honest, we all love the Cheltenham Festival, but if we as a sport cannot see horses competing in Grade 1 races in December, because of Cheltenham, this is surely a concern for the sport?
Add to this, Henderson commenting on how tired Altior finished behind Cyranme and filing it under ‘welfare’ to Lydia Hislop on Saturday – in a bid to shut down the debate – and we really should be worried.
Name me an athlete that has never gotten tired? What is wrong with being tired? We have become afraid of our lives of horses getting tired, and also horses losing pre-Cheltenham. This is elite sport, professional sport, albeit an animal pursuit, where trainers and jockeys are licensed, and the animals bred to run. We are in good hands, but competition is needed.
But this is not even close to a welfare issue Nicky, this, and Altior not running on Saturday, was because you don’t want hard competition pre-March for your horses, and you also got the ground wrong.
In all this, it also shouldn’t be forgotten, winter National Hunt horses this season got an extended breaks due to Covid, with the top-class animals not going to Aintree, Punchestown, Ayr or Sandown. Could Altior have not run in the Shloer Chase for his Tingle Creek prep, and then be put away for the Game Spirit, ahead of his big Cheltenham target?
If you’re a two-mile chaser, only two races matter; the Tingle Creek and the Champion Chase, but connections of Altior – and many others - would rather tiptoe their way around soft Graded races pre-Cheltenham, ducking any meaningful competition. This really isn’t sport. This isn’t horse racing, and the jumps game is more than Cheltenham in March.
But fair play to Henderson, he fronted up and was interviewed by both RTV and ITV on Saturday. He said ‘50% of the people agreed with him’ but while I was in the other 50%, I still have huge respect for Henderson as a trainer, and as a man.
There is no doubt he loves his horses, I just think he loves them too much sometimes, especially if they are Cheltenham Festival caliber.