ALTIOR CONSOLIDATES HIS GREATNESS IN STIRRING TINGLE CREEK
In the years and decades ahead, nostalgic reflection on Altior’s career may well follow the narrative of an unbeaten jumper that was an undisputed superstar from start to finish. However, while he has had many believers from an early stage, up until relatively recently it was perfectly valid to question the merit of what exactly Altior had achieved.
For various reasons, a case could be made that Altior had never beaten a truly top-class rival on their best day. Of course, even if that view was correct, it certainly wasn’t Altior’s fault and wouldn’t preclude him from greatness. However, such status shouldn’t be easily earned and not everyone wished to elevate him to that level until he accomplished it beyond dispute. That moment came in the Queen Mother Champion Chase last March.
Despite having missed much of the season due to an early-season breathing operation and having had only one run prior to the Cheltenham Festival, what Altior produced at Prestbury Park that day was greatness. The Willie Mullins-trained Min is a very talented horse. On that day he had his optimum conditions, everything went right for him and he looked to run right up to his very best if not beyond it, yet Altior surged away from him up the run-in to win by an impressive seven lengths. It represented a career-best performance from Altior, one which justified and likely surpassed the billing given to him by even his biggest supporters. That day, he was great.
While Altior removed any lingering doubts about his greatness that day at Cheltenham, that didn’t mean that it could be taken for granted that he would remain at that level for years to come. The stars of the two-mile chase division don’t always shine at their brightest for nearly as long as we wish they would. The most pertinent example of this is Altior’s great stable mate Sprinter Sacre who only showed the very peak of his powers on two occasions in his career.
Such was his talent, a diminished version of him was able to memorably regain his Champion Chase crown three years after he won his first, but his example remains a cautionary tale that we shouldn’t assume that these great horses will stay at their peak for as long as we’d hope.
It was within that context that made last Saturday’s Tingle Creek so intriguing. It was clear that if Altior turned up in the same form that he had in the Champion Chase last March, even a top-class performer like Un De Sceaux would struggle to deal with him. The concern surrounding whether Altior had retained all his ability was made all the more relevant when his history of breathing issues was considered. As it transpired, such concerns were unnecessary.
As had been the case in the Champion Chase last season, Altior was up against a top-class performer that had his optimum conditions in the shape of Un De Sceaux. Willie Mullins’s charge has been well established as a top-class performer for many years now and his exploits last season suggested that his talent was in no way diminished by his advancing years. While he has shown great versatility in his career, his record at around two miles on ground with soft in the description was particularly formidable, reading as 14 wins from 14 completed starts in such circumstances.
With the heavens having opened at Sandown prior to the Tingle Creek, the stars looked to be aligning for Un De Sceaux. It was reminiscent of the Lexus Chase of 2004 where the rain poured down in the build-up to the race and swung the pendulum in favour of Beef Or Salmon and away from Best Mate. Everything looked right for Un De Sceaux to run his race and he proved to be faultless on the day. Beautifully ridden by Ruby Walsh, he did not miss a single beat at any stage.
Having initially settled quite well behind Saint Calvadosbefore jumping to the front at the sixth fence, Un De Sceaux soon began to relentlessly drag his opposition into deeper water in a manner that no other rival he had faced over this trip and ground in the past could cope with. Two race-fit, top-class prospects in Saint Calvados and Sceau Royal couldn’t cope with it and had cried enough even before the second-last fence was jumped. It was a performance that would have been more than enough to win most Tingle Creek’s in such conditions, but unfortunately for Un De Sceaux, on this occasion he bumped into greatness.
Altior can show vulnerability in his races. He did when hitting a flat spot in the Champion Chase and he briefly did so again on Saturday, but it is his strength up the run-in that will define his greatness and that is what impressed at Sandown. Despite Un De Sceaux making this a test that few could have coped with, Altior surged through it and was further clear of him at line than he was at any stage of the race.
What makes Altior’s performance even more impressive is that while Un De Sceaux didn’t miss a beat at any stage, Altior very much did. He misjudged the second fence to an extent that would have been catastrophic for almost any other horse, launching himself into the air far, far too early. It is a testament to his scope and athleticism that he not only was able to make it to the far side of the fence on his feet, but it hardly cost him any ground or momentum. As well as that, Un De Sceaux ever so slightly outjumped Altior on a number of occasions thereafter, including at the final two fences. Yet, Altior was still much the best on the day.
As brilliant as Altior was in the Champion Chase last March, he was every bit as good at Sandown on Saturday. With his powers confirmed as being fully intact, he sets a formidable standard for the likes of Footpad and Great Field to come up to if they can bounce back from their recent falls. Other than them, Altior has cleaned out the division. Right now, he is holding all the aces and it is difficult to see him loosening his grip on them in the foreseeable future.