Altior bids to crown another faultless campaign with a third successive victory in the bet365 Celebration Chase.
Nicky Henderson’s superstar returns to Sandown having won each of his four previous starts this season – most recently claiming his fourth Cheltenham Festival triumph when successfully defending his crown in the Queen Mother Champion Chase.
That battling victory saw Altior extend his unbeaten sequence over jumps to 18 – a joint-record of successive wins along with Big Buck’s – and it will be a huge surprise if he does not nose ahead of the great staying hurdler as the season comes to a close on Saturday.
However, Henderson issued a note of caution regarding underfoot conditions, saying: “He loves good, fast ground – but it has got to be safe ground.”
With Altior seemingly set to test his powers over three miles next season – potentially in the King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day – an appearance over the intermediate distance of two and a half in Aintree’s Melling Chase earlier this month was seriously considered.
Connections ultimately decided against a trip to Merseyside, because they felt the nine-year-old was not firing on all cylinders, but Henderson is confident his charge is in peak condition again for his seasonal swansong.
He added: “Nico (de Boinville) and the team are very good with him, and the horse is very good at talking to you – he will tell you if he is right.
“We had a look at him 10 days before Aintree – and although he was fine, he wasn’t wanting to take off with you. He didn’t need another race at that point, but he is absolutely humming for a race now.”
For a while it looked as if Altior could be set for what would have been a mouthwatering clash with the exciting Cyrname, but trainer Paul Nicholls decided against it earlier this week on account of the prevailing fast ground.
Henderson said: “Cyrname is not there, but let’s just concentrate on what we are doing and not what everybody else is doing. What everyone else is doing is not our game.
“We have always been coming here, and that was the plan. We’ve just got to try and get on and get our job done.
“We know Altior likes Sandown. He has hit that flat spot at Cheltenham, but he soon shakes his head – and (then) off he goes, and he is gone.
“The (winning) sequence gets longer, but it has to end one day.
“Having said that, you would love to go out (this season) with his record still intact. That would make everything then – we will all go to bed happy.”
In Cyrname’s absence, the horse likely to give Altior most to think about is Alan King’s Sceau Royal.
The seven-year-old briefly appeared to have the defending champion in real trouble when jumping the final fence in front at Cheltenham last month, but ultimately had to make do with minor honours in third.
“It was always the plan to miss Aintree and come here, and he’s going into the race fresh and well,” said King.
“He seems in great form, and I would hope he’ll run a mighty race, but we’re under no illusions about what we’re up against.
“Someone has got to take Altior on, and we’ll give it a good go.”
God’s Own was third to Altior in this race 12 months ago but his trainer Tom George conditions will be more suitable this time.
“He’s in great form. It looks like he might be getting his ground for the first time since the Haldon Gold Cup (at Exeter in November),” said the Slad handler.
“He didn’t get home on the soft ground at Aintree last time over two and a half.
“He’s retaining all the enthusiasm he ever did. We’ll see how he goes.”
Nicholls relies on Diego Du Charmil for his bid to add to his record haul of five Celebration Chase wins.
With Gary Moore’s huge outsider Darebin declared a non-runner, the Dr Richard Newland-trained Vosne Romanee completes the five-strong field.