Nicky Henderson is confident Altior can silence the doubters in the Ladbrokes Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton Park on Sunday.
The dual Queen Mother Champion Chase hero will officially turn 11 on New Year’s Day, and last season was far from straightforward for him, with Henderson admitting he is still scarred by his stable star’s only defeat over jumps to date when beaten by Cyrname at Ascot.
Altior bounced back to winning ways at Newbury in February, but has not been seen in competitive action since – missing the Champion Chase because of a setback and withdrawn from this month’s Tingle Creek at Sandown on account of testing conditions.
While the latter decision drew criticism from some quarters, Henderson remains happy it was the right call and insists there are no signs that Altior’s powers are on the wane, despite his advancing years.
“We’re all getting older, and it does slow you down, but he seems in very good form,” said the Seven Barrows handler.
“He’s got to prove it, of course. There are doubters out there and they’re perfectly entitled to doubt, but we’re happy with where we are and we know where we’re going, we think.”
Paul Nicholls is anticipating a bold showing from Duc Des Genievres.
Winner of the 2019 Arkle when trained by Willie Mullins, the grey made a promising start for his new trainer as runner-up to Irish challenger Put The Kettle On in the Shloer Chase at Cheltenham last month.
Nicholls said: “We were very encouraged by his run at Cheltenham. He surprised us a little bit, because we thought he’d need the run.
“I actually think this track will suit him better than Cheltenham, and he’s improved a ton for the run.
“Altior at his very best is going to be hard to beat, but our horse is in good form. He would like a bit of cut in the ground.”
The Harry Whittington-trained Rouge Vif carried a big weight to victory on his first start of the season in a Cheltenham handicap, before finishing an honourable third in the Tingle Creek.
“Rouge Vif has come out of the Tingle Creek in good form and he will probably get more suitable conditions at Kempton,” said Whittington.
“He has run well at Kempton the last two years and he is entitled to be there.
“We are happy with him at home and he is hopefully the young gun coming through in the division – it should make for a good showdown.”
Dan Skelton is looking forward to seeing Nube Negra run for the first time since chasing home Rouge Vif in the Kingmaker Novices’ Chase at Warwick in February.
He said: “It’s the first time he is stepping up into this league against the big boys – but I’m happy with him at home, and we’ve got to find out where we stand with him. We’ve given him plenty of time.”
Earlier in the afternoon Henderson will saddle the hugely exciting Shishkin in the Ladbrokes Wayward Lad Novices’ Chase, a race Altior won four years ago.
Last season’s Supreme Novices’ Hurdle winner made a foot-perfect start to his chasing career at Kempton, and it will be a major surprise if he does not follow up.
“He’s a gorgeous looking horse with a lot of talent. He’s one of these guys who knows he’s good,” said Henderson.
“He won his bumper very easily – we’d have been disappointed with anything else. He actually fell on his first run over hurdles – but it wasn’t a big issue, and we corrected it fairly quickly.
“His run in the Supreme was extraordinary, because everything went wrong that could have gone wrong, and yet he still got it right.
“He was in the Guinness tent at one stage! He was taken to an impossible position and had to come through a minefield of horses. I know he only won narrowly, but considering where he’d been, it was a pretty high-class performance.”
Shishkin’s three rivals include stablemate Elusive Belle and the Nicholls-trained Tamaroc Du Mathan, who faces a big rise in class after impressing on his fencing bow at Wincanton.
Nicholls said: “He’s a nice horse. We cauterised his palate during the summer and went for a novice handicap chase at Wincanton and duly won. He only won off 131, but he jumped brilliantly and hosed in.
“He needs to improve again, taking on Shishkin. But he jumps really well, and I think he’s an exciting two-mile chaser for us.”