Nicky Henderson expects the outcome of the Christy 1965 Chase to go a long way to determining what the future holds for Altior as he prepares for a mouthwatering clash with Cyrname.
Unbeaten in 19 starts over jumps, Altior’s status as a bona fide superstar of the sport has long been secured, but on Saturday at Ascot he faces arguably his toughest assignment to date.
Having won the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, the Arkle, the Tingle Creek and a couple of Queen Mother Champion Chases, connections have decided the time is right to step into the unknown and test Altior beyond two miles.
This weekend’s two-mile-five-furlong Grade Two is viewed as the ideal stepping-stone to a potential tilt at the King George VI Chase over three miles at Kempton on Boxing Day – but Henderson has stressed all future plans hinge on how Altior performs in Berkshire.
“Stamina is going to be the issue. Nico (de Boinville) has always thought he was racing at the end of last season as if he wanted another half a mile, and on Saturday he is going to get another five furlongs,” said the Seven Barrows handler.
“It will test his stamina, I’m sure. He doesn’t work like a stayer, but Nico is adamant he wants it, so let’s hope he is right.
“We’ve got to give it a go and we are starting over two-miles-five, which I hope will lead us to three miles. Goodness knows what happens if it doesn’t, as we have left the Tingle Creek behind.
“What I want to do is win, but it needs to be convincing, too. He needs to prove he can do that and gallop away. It will tell us what to do and where we are going, there is no doubt about that.
“We’ll have to see what happens on the day. We will take it on the chin if it goes the wrong way – he has to get beaten one day and this time we are putting him to the test.”
When Henderson first identified Ascot as Altior’s likely starting point, he probably hoped his presence would scare off the opposition.
However, in the Paul Nicholls-trained Cyrname he faces a serious rival, with his 17-length demolition of Waiting Patiently in February’s Ascot Chase over this course and distance ensuring he ended last season as Britain’s highest-rated chaser – a pound clear of Altior.
Henderson said: “They were always coming here and so were we. I don’t think either of us are shirkers of battles and there is nowhere else to go.
“I don’t want to wait for the Peterborough Chase at Huntingdon (December 8) as it is getting quite close to Kempton. That race might not have told you a lot. It might have been an easier option, but we are not looking for that.”
On his last visit to Ascot in January, Altior jumped markedly left at many of his fences, although it was not enough to stop him sauntering to success in the Clarence House Chase.
Henderson added: “He did it (jumped left) at Ascot when he was on his own. I don’t expect him to do that again, but Nico will be awake to the fact he did it there before.
“I don’t see it being a problem. No one can predict what will happen, but we will be watching carefully when he turns up that hill.”
Whatever happens, Henderson has hinted his charge will either bid for a Champion Chase hat-trick or go for Cheltenham Gold Cup glory at Prestbury Park in March, rather than run over an intermediate distance in the Ryanair.
He said: “Saturday is not going to tell us who is going to do what at Cheltenham. I will have a pound to a brick that they (Altior and Cyrname) won’t be meeting each other in the Ryanair Chase.
“As much as the Ryanair is a great race, I’d rather come back to two (miles) if that is a necessity.”
Nicholls is never one to shy away from a challenge and is looking forward to seeing Cyrname test his powers against Altior, on a track which clearly brings out the best in his charge.
He said: “Of course we’re looking forward to it. It’s the start of a new season for him and it didn’t matter what was going to run against him, we were always going to run here.
“It’s a nice place to start the season, but it’s not all about Saturday, there’s a long season with good races along the way.
“We’re looking forward to it, though, and the fact it is at Ascot has to be in his favour. He’s been so impressive there the last twice – that’s why we’re going back.”
The only other runner is Dan Skelton’s Solomon Grey.