HOW WILL ALTIOR REACT TO HIS ASCOT DEFEAT?
When adversity occurs in sport, as in the end of a winning streak, it triggers a negative cycle, whereby the in-built physical and cognitive reactions to put it right can, ironically, snowball into an even worse performance. In other words, the art and the act of ‘rebounding’ is easier said than done, because we’re wired to (over) analyse adversity.
That’s humans and not horses, for whom adversity affects not necessarily performance but perception and, ultimately, appreciation.
Take Faugheen, for example. The zealous reception that greeted him at Leopardstown last Sunday – a crowd enraptured and a memory captured – was more than a moment of rejoice, it was a memento of respect: the sort of respect that only comes with recognition that this hero has had his hardships, but that defeats have refined him rather than defined him.
It dates back to November 15th, 2015. With an air of invincibility that’s only generated by an unblemished record, 10 from 10 including a Champion Hurdle, Faugheen was 6/1-on for the Morgiana Hurdle when he was unfathomably toppled by Nichols Canyon.
There would be longer, darker problem periods for Faugheen in the years ahead, but that was a big one because it was the first one, and he rebounded the right way straight away – with back-to-back Grade 1s – before an injury-enforced absence of almost two years.
The reverence of Faugheen is related to his ‘bouncebackability’, over time, over obstacles, and that’s the heart of the matter, because it’s a matter of the heart, the mechanics of Faugheen now as much emotion as motion, after all he’s done since that first reversal way back in November ’15.
Altior is now where Faugheen was then. What’s coincidentally curious is precisely where Altior was then, on November 15th, 2015. An hour before Faugheen fluffed his lines at Punchestown, over at Cheltenham, Altior gained the third of his 19 straight wins that would set a new jumps’ world record.
But it wouldn’t have been a record had Maputo not gone wrong on the run-in that day when having Altior’s measure. As it was, fortune was on his side that afternoon and the rest, literally and figuratively, is history.
The upshot is that Altior has never before been in this position, an aftershock of Ascot when taught a lesson by Cyrname. For the first time in his career, he has to issue a rebuttal: a general response to Ascot and, moreover, a personal response to Defi Du Seuil and Chacun Pour Soi, who’ve since stolen what thunder was left to him by Cyrname.
So, in order to re-establish himself as the Champion Chaser, what three things do we need to see from Altior in the Win Bigger On The Betfair Exchange Chase, known to most of us as the Game Spirit?
1) A COMMANDING WIN
A win against this lot is a given; commanding is the qualifier. When Altior won this – by 4 lengths – en route to Cheltenham in 2018, he was playing a different game, a game of catch-up following a long lay-off, and therefore it was treated as a semi screw-tightener, no buttons depressed to the full for obvious reasons.
This time, for what’s at stake and what’s in store, he needs to show not just that he’s around but that he’s back. If the winning margin is indeed double-digits, then that puts extra heat under the Champion Chase as potentially the race of Cheltenham week.
2) AN EXTRAVAGENT LEAP
Of all of his more conspicuous signs of well-being over the years, over the fences, a flair-filled flamboyant jump has been perhaps the trademark of Altior. We know his tendency to jump left on right-handed courses, seen at Ascot and Sandown, nothing meaningful nor menacing behind it, just part of his make-up, but that won’t be a factor around Newbury, giving him the focus and freedom to throw in one of those spectacular springs that would act as a singular statement within the speech.
Neither a commanding win nor an extravagant leap is a stipulation, but one or both would be a critical connection to his past best, and an assurance that he’s not past his best.
3) THE FINAL 10%
The not-so-secret weapon in Altior’s arsenal has always been his final 10% of a race, getting him out of spots and getting him out of sight of every horse he’s ever come up against over jumps…until Cyrname.
We could see it, Nico de Boinville could feel it, and it looked in last year’s Champion Chase as if Altior knew it too, almost toying with the opposition prior to going into ‘sport mode’ up the run-in, still his narrowest ever winning margin over fences.
That final flourish, for which he’s famous, was missing at Ascot in November. Whether it was because of the trip, or the absence, it was missing, and he’s been missing since, meaning it’s vital that we get, at the very least, a sense it’s still there on Saturday, for his own benefit, but also for the purposes of unsettling his title rivals, or their riders.
It’s only by ticking each box on the above checklist that he could reclaim favouritism for the Champion Chase. In ratings terms, he has been to places that both Defi Du Seuil and Chacun Pour Soi can only squint to see in the distance, but they’re on a very different trajectory to Altior, and that’s why Newbury is so important to Nicky Henderson’s horse, and to the division: the King is dead, long live the King. In this case it’s one or the other.