Riding great John Francome believes Cyrname could have the edge over Altior for their highly-anticipated clash at Ascot on Saturday.
Nicky Henderson’s Altior has proved an unstoppable force over obstacles so far – winning each of his 19 starts – but has yet to run over further than an extended two miles.
However, connections have already set their stall out to step up in distance this season – allowing him to tackle two miles and five furlongs in the Christy 1965 Chase, before a potential tilt at the three-mile Ladbrokes King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day.
The Paul Nicholls-trained Cyrname has already excelled over this weekend’s course and distance twice this year, with his scintillating display in February’s Ascot Chase seeing him end the season rated a pound higher than Altior on a mark of 176.
Francome, who was crowned champion jockey seven times between 1976 and 1985, does not see the extra trip being a major issue for Altior, but feels Cyrname will prove hard to beat at this particular venue.
“I remember watching Cyrname winning around Ascot the last time he ran and thinking, ‘Altior would need to be at his best to beat him’,” explained Francome.
“They’re two very good horses and there probably isn’t much between them. Altior looks to stay fine – I don’t think there should be any problem with the trip.
“Altior can jump a bit left as well, which won’t help around Ascot, so if I had to pick one to ride I’d probably go for Cyrname.
“Having said that, maybe I’d go for Altior, because I’d rather have a telling off from Nicky Henderson for getting beat than Paul Nicholls!”
Peter Scudamore won seven straight jockeys’ championships between 1986 and 1992, having previously shared the title with Francome in 1982.
Like his old weighing-room rival, Scudamore would “just about” side with Cyrname if given the choice.
He said: “I can’t say I’d be confident which way it will go, but the Paul Nicholls horse has looked very good around Ascot.
“Altior looks as though he wants the step up in trip, but then I’ve been reading Nicky saying he’s been working very well and he doesn’t seem to have lost any of his pace. They’ll have a better idea after Saturday whether Altior wants to step up to three miles or not.
“If I had to ride one, I’d just about go for Cyrname, but it’s going to be a fascinating clash.”
Mick Fitzgerald was stable jockey to Nicky Henderson before his enforced retirement from the saddle in 2008 due to injury.
Unsurprisingly, he believes Altior can get the job done this weekend before heading to Kempton.
Fitzgerald said: “I’ve loved Altior since day one. I was lucky enough to see him in Nicky’s in his early days and from the day he won his first novice hurdle, through to him winning the Supreme Novices’, I thought, ‘this horse is a bit of an aeroplane’, and so it has proved.
“Nobody wants to see a champion beaten. I think it’s great for racing that the Altior team are sticking their necks on the line and having a go and I really hope he wins.”
Perhaps the last horse to prove himself at the very top level over a variety of trips was the mighty Kauto Star – winning two Tingle Creeks over two miles before going on to win five King Georges and the Cheltenham Gold Cup twice.
Fitzgerald steered the Nicholls ace to win his first Tingle Creek in 2005.
“I don’t think the trip is going to be a problem for Altior and I do think he’ll stay three miles,” Fitzgerald continued.
“You never really know until they go and do it, but what I always say when this comes up is I rode Kauto Star to win a Tingle Creek, and if you’d told me at that stage he’d go on to win give King Georges I’d have said you were mad.
“I’m not saying Altior is Kauto Star, but he’s a special horse.”
Richard Johnson, champion jockey in each of the last four seasons, will be an interested observer – and would plump for Altior as his ride.
Hen said: “They are obviously two very good horses, but if I was picking one to ride it would probably be Altior.
“He has a perfect record (over jumps) and although it’s a longer trip than he’s been before, you’d have to say, looking at the way he races, there’s a good chance he’ll stay.
“It’s fantastic to have two horses like these taking each other on for their first run of the season. It’s an exciting race and I’m sure everyone will be a lot wiser afterwards.”