Declan Rix

On Saturday the 2018/19 British National Hunt campaign finished, but with many looking to next season's potentially mouth-watering clash between Altior and Cyrname, Declan Rix questions if it will be a fair match-up.

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The curtain came down on the 2018/19 British National Hunt season at Sandown on Saturday, and what a strange campaign it was. It was a campaign affected by unseasonably dry weather in Britain, and Ireland, and it frustrated owners, trainers and fans alike. To top it off, we were dealt a soft ground Cheltenham Festival; frustrating from a form-following perspective.

In-and-around this juncture each year we usually recap on what has happened, nominate the big moments of the season, the stars of the campaign and summarise. With the Irish season set to finish this week as it always does, coinciding with the Punchestown Festival, there are maybe more noteworthy moments to come, so I’d rather look forward to the 2019/20 National Hunt season.

It would appear many other jumps racing fans are gleefully peering into their crystal balls, too. Why? Well, to see the much-awaited clash of two-time Champion Chase and four-time Cheltenham Festival winner Altior versus officially the highest rated horse in training, Cyrname.

The pair were pencilled in to take each other on in the Grade 1 Celebration Chase (2m) on Saturday - where Altior won, breaking Big Buck’s 18-consecutive winning streak in the process - but unsuitable ground understandably saw Paul Nicholls pull his charge out.

We must now wait to see if that highest rated horse in training accolade fixed to Cyrname by the BHA Handicappers is correct, and while some cannot wait for these two National Hunts giants to collide my enthusiasm is sadly tempered, for the simple reason, I don’t think it’s a fair fight, on several fronts.

The undisputable elements involve age and career trajectory in terms of level of form. Next season, Altior will be a 22-start nine-year-old pushing 10 in career decline, in terms of ability over 2m, while Cyrname will head into 2019/20 as a 16-start seven-year-old on a steep upward curve over 2.5m+, albeit, he needs to show it away from Ascot.

Altior’s level of form this campaign has been comfortably below his career peak, that sensational 2018 Champion Chase seven lengths drubbing of Min, of where the BHA likely underrated his performance. There could be a number of explanations for this; Altior simply may not be as good as he was, which is understandable as a horse gets older at this level, with general wear and tear a likely factor.

Altior breaks Big Buck's record
Altior soars over the second on his way to breaking Big Buck's record

Another school of thought is that the minimum trip of 2m which Altior has always competed over at the top level is maybe a sharp enough test for the son of High Chaparral nowadays, a theory one can get behind visually. Or it may well be that as Altior has continued to age, he has become more self-preservatory and has only been doing enough this season.

Whatever your opinion is, I think it is fair to say Altior has not been as good as he was, maybe he hasn’t needed to be, and he must now face a horse who is at his career peak, who could get even better. It’s akin to a 27-year-old Anthony Joshua taking on the still top-class (but) 41-year-old Wladimir Klitschko, one of the greatest-ever heavyweight champions. That was a match-up that still intrigued because sport is so unpredictable, but in the back of your mind you know it’s not quite a fair test for one corner.

When you dig deeper down into the equine match-making contract, it becomes a contest that further doesn’t sit right with you, and in this case, ironically, it’s because where a match-up concerning Altior and Cyrname is likely to take place, it will come on a right-handed track, namely Ascot or Kempton.

Without delving deeper into the distance, just yet, a right-handed course, wherever it may be will clearly favour the younger, up-and-coming horse Cyrname, especially if a clash happened to take place at Ascot, a track the Paul Nicholls inmate has thrived at this campaign, testament to his two wide-margin, eye-popping victories there. Altior on the other hand, has shown this season he is a much happier horse running left-handed.

Four of five of Altior’s victories in 2018/19 came on right-handed tracks, counter-intuitive from my last sentence, yes, but worryingly, as we went on Nicky Henderson’s charge started to jump further and further to his left, forfeiting ground at multiple fences. There were small signs against Un De Sceaux in the Tingle Creek back in December, but by the time April came, jumping left at Kempton (Desert Orchid Chase), Ascot (Clarence House Chase) and Sandown (Celebration Chase) became a fixed feature of Altior’s performances.

Making his own running in some of those races may not have suited ideally, dossing could easily be a theory for the undesirable trait, but whatever the reason, it is now a theme that ever-so-slightly gives Cyrname another edge if they clashed right-handed.

Distance is another factor concerning Altior, coupled with him going right-handed, that may well play to Cyrname’s strengths more so than the two-time Champion Chase winner. This, admittedly, would only be of a major benefit to the young pretender if they met in the King George VI Chase at Kempton over 3m. There, both Altior and Cyrname are likely to meet numerous other top-class performers, but the odds of Cyrname seeing out that trip are surely a lot shorter than Altior doing so?

Contrary to that, if they clashed over 2m1f at Ascot in the Clarence House, that’s a distance that would favour Altior more, especially on decent ground, and it maybe wouldn’t be fair on Cyrname.

The massive outcry from fans to see Altior running in the King George is something I have never understood, especially with the recent evidence of his jumping left coming to light. While I would be excited to see the unbeaten jumper compete over two-and-a-half miles, surely a horse of his genetic and visual make up must be a significantly doubtful stayer over 3m.

Altior is by High Chaparral and out of a Key Of Luck mare; his dam Monte Solaro did win over 2m as a hurdler, but it’s not a pedigree that suggests National Hunt staying power. Furthermore, when you factor in Altior’s exuberant style of racing and jumping, the fact he is favourite, and as short as 5/2, for the 2019 King George is hard to fathom, especially when you factor in his jumping left and the current classy crop of staying novice chasers.

If Altior and Cyrname were to ever clash, Newbury over two-and-a-half miles may be a fairer test, because I’m still not totally convinced Cyrname must go right-handed for all the evidence suggests he prefers it. This, however, is fantasy as there isn’t a suitable race at Newbury and by the time The Melling Chase comes around at Aintree, you’re getting late into the season.

Sadly, I just can’t get fired up by Altior-vs-Cyrname under the circumstances they are likely to happen, but as ever the possibility of being wrong still means I’ll tune in. Being wrong is something you get accustomed to in horse racing, and there is every chance I am here. If you believe Altior isn’t as good this season solely because he has become idler, and his jumping to the left on right-handed tracks is due to him not getting a lead, then by all means don’t let me spoil the excitement.

Declan Rix
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