ALTIOR RETURNS TO THE WINNERS’ ENCLOSURE AHEAD OF CHAMPION CHASE DEFENCE
Champion race horse Altior was back in the winners’ enclosure at Newbury on Saturday, having won the Grade 2 Game Spirit Chase in taking fashion by a widening 3¼ lengths from Sceau Royaland Dynamite Dollars.
As the returned SP of 1/3 suggested, the two-time Champion Chaser was ‘expected’ to win, and in the end, he did so in style, but on the back of his first defeat over obstacles in the Christy 1965 Chase at Ascot last time out there were maybe lingering doubts about the Nicky Henderson-trained horse.
I could maybe see why some doubt had crept into the minds of Altior’s fans, on the back of a bruising – physically and egotistical - loss to Cyrname last time out. In black and white, a first defeat in 20 starts should lead to questions, but to view this great game so simplistically is just plain wrong.
The truth – at least in my opinion – is Altior’s loss to Cyrname was his best run – in terms of ratings - since his outstanding seven-length defeat of Min in the 2018 Champion Chase. Yes, in between there were five Grade 1 victories, including another Champion Chase, and his defeat did come in a Grade 2, but to beaten by an Ascot monster in Cyrname is nothing to be too disappointed in, especially with Altior looking happier on left-handed tracks these days. Easier said than done for those associated with him, and his biggest fans, of course, I do acknowledge.
The constant excuse-making from Seven Barrows since that November 23rd defeat have become tiresome – extremely tiresome – but Altior did all his own talking on Saturday – the way it should be - and for me, visually, it was the best we have seen the son of High Chaparral since his first Champion Chase.
The significant and consistent jumping to his left wasn’t anywhere near as obvious on Saturday, as it was last season, for a start. He looked bright and aggressive early, like he often does, and while his jumping was big at a couple of fences, the ten-year-old appeared slicker over his obstacles for the most part. Coupled with how he picked up and quickened late - like a smart Flat horse - visually, this was good from Altior.
In terms of the level of form, for this race, it matches up quite well with what I have Chacun Pour Soi and Defi Du Seuil doing this season. The former I have running to 165 in his Dublin Chase win, while Defi Du Seuil got 164 for his Tingle Creek success. Being eight and seven, respectably, there is obvious scope for more improvement.
In the Game Spirit, Altior ran to a 162, but that could easily have been 2-3lb higher, had Nico de Boinville used his stick earlier, and not just after the last. How good did Altior look here on nice ground once de Boinville gave him the cue he wanted more? Another example of how important, excuse the phrase again, the air-cushioned foam persuader is, in getting the best out of these athletes. It’s also worth saying, as I get back on topic, I had Altior running to 168 in his Christy 1965 Chase, but bear in mind that trip of 2m5f.
In terms of ability, Altior has nothing to fear in the 2020 Champion Chase field, on what we’ve seen. The very nature of the Queen Mother test, however, may be his biggest enemy in many ways. The test itself takes place on the Old Course (2m) at Cheltenham, a sharp track, that for quite a while I have thought never plays to the strengths of the relentless galloping 10-time Grade 1 winner.
It’s sharp and turning nature makes the leggy, long-striding performer, not look all at sea, but it does appear it is the track he always looks most vulnerable on, especially in comparison to the likes of Newbury and Sandown. An incredible statement, that may read to some, as Altior is unbeaten in five starts on the Old Course, including a Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, an Arkle and two Champion Chases; the first of which remains his career best effort.
To counter the above, his Arkle win and last season’s Champion Chase victory showed that he isn’t as far ahead of the posse as his official rating and SP in those races suggested. That, for me, is not down to ability but down to the Old Course, with its turns, downhill runs and shortish straight not allowing Altior to engage top gear until after jumping the second last fence.
With his jumping just becoming that bit more careful as he has gotten older, this extra time spent in the air is another factor that gives his rivals, especially quick-jumping ones, a slightly better chance. Defi Du Seuil himself has had to iron out his airy jumping but is certainly getting slicker while I see little to fault Chacun Pour Soi in, in this department.
That pair will obviously be Altior’s biggest dangers on the Wednesday of The Festival, but the likes of Sceau Royal and Dynamite Dollars will add to the race should they run. They filled the second and third spots behind Altior, and both ran lovely races.
Sceau Royal has got an interesting profile heading into this season’s Champion Chase, on the back of a fine third in the race last year. He has improved with each start this campaign and Saturday’s second was a seasonal best. He now heads to Cheltenham this time round in much better form, compared to last year, and if the Alan King yard, who are currently not firing like they can, hit their stride on the run-up to March, he’d have sound each-way claims at 33/1.
The 2019 Arkle was robbed of Dynamite Dollars – and Le Richebourg – through injury, but Paul Nicholls’s inmate made a beautiful return to action on the back of a 378-day lay-off. The way he hit the line suggested he was fit enough to do himself justice, but his jumping is better than showed here, and that may well improve with a run under his belt now.
He’ll meet Altior and Sceau Royal on 3lb worse terms at Cheltenham, should he run in the Champion Chase, but if Nicholls left plenty to work on, and if he can overcome the dreaded bounce factor, he is another who may play a more significant part than his odds (33/1) suggest.
As to picking the winner of the Champion Chase now, it’s too early for me personally. There is no particular value at the moment, but I would have Altior favourite over Chacun Pour Soi and then Defi Du Seuil.
With the likes of Cilaos Emery, Sceau Royal and Dynamite Dollars in, we have a truly tremendous race on our hands, should they all line up.