Nicky Henderson is confident multiple Grade One winner Altior can return to his brilliant best in the Win Bigger On Betfair Exchange Chase at Newbury on Saturday.
The 10-year-old will warm up for the defence of his Queen Mother Champion Chase crown at the Cheltenham Festival when bidding to get his career firmly back on track with a third victory in the Grade Two better known as the Game Spirit.
After registering 19 successive wins over hurdles and fences, Altior saw his colours lowered by the Paul Nicholls-trained Cyrname in the Christy 1965 Chase at Ascot in November, where he tried a trip of two miles and five furlongs for the first time.
Henderson said: “He has been in good form. You might have seen the film of him schooling and you won’t see anything faster. You seriously wonder why you would want to go any further than two miles.
“No horse in England would keep up with him, what he was doing the other day. If you blinked you would have missed it, but that is him.
“He has got to prove himself again, and I think he can. He has only been beaten once, in a two-mile-five race in a bog when he was only half-ready for it.
“It doesn’t mean he is old – he got beaten and it was going to happen and that was the day it was going to happen.
“They had a very hard race and he was very tired. It wasn’t stamina, as he finished the same distance behind the winner that he was two out. He kept galloping all right and he would gallop all day for you.
“Paul might disagree totally, but to me his horse didn’t run his race in the King George and it took us a long time to get over it.
“He was as fit as I could have him first time out, but you don’t normally expect to come into that sort of clash on your first appearance.
“I don’t think (it has left a mark). Heavy ground would be the biggest worry. A dry week would help enormously. Heavy ground would worry me, but there you go. We have to run.
“He likes Newbury, he has won this before and the timing is great.”
Reflecting further on Ascot, the Seven Barrows trainer admitted he came close to pulling Altior out.
He went on: “Under normal circumstances we wouldn’t have run, but you then leave it as a walkover and do we deserve to do that to racing?
“As the Pughs (owners) said, we would have preferred not to run on the day. We would have take him out under any normal circumstances and we should have done.
“That is the problem you are under, what was the racing public going to say if you do that? You should say the horse comes first, unfortunately we did it the other way round and we paid the penalty.”
Although Henderson is keen for Altior to reassert his position as the best two-mile chaser in the country, he has not dismissed the possibility of running his stable star over further again in the future.
He said: “It wouldn’t be (out of the question stepping up in trip) as far as Aintree is concerned, as long as he can come through Cheltenham and get over it in three weeks. That is what he couldn’t do when the gap was four weeks two years ago.
“Is he likely to be ready (for Aintree), I don’t know, and I would say the Celebration Chase (at Sandown) is much more likely. I’d say going two and a half this season is unlikely.
“I respected what people wanted and to be fair Nico (de Boinville) was keen on the idea (new trip). The biggest problem was it was the first run of the year and he got caught out. I did get caught out as he wasn’t ready for two-mile-five in that ground, at that pace.”
His prospective rivals at the weekend include the Nicholls-trained Dynamite Dollars, who has been absent since winning at Doncaster last January.
Nicholls can also call on Magic Saint, while Bun Doran, Kalashnikov, Sceau Royal and Simply Ned are among others in the mix.
Henderson, meanwhile, is hoping to get Might Bite back on track in the Betfair Denman Chase.
The 2018 Cheltenham Gold Cup runner-up disappointed in last season’s renewal and nothing has gone right for him in two starts so far this term.
He said: “It will be a nice place for him to go and have a canter round.
“We are just getting him back. We’ve done a few different things with him and he seems in good form.
“He has been doing lots of schooling and jumping and been having fun.”
Among seven possible opponents for Might Bite is his Gold Cup conqueror, the Colin Tizzard-trained Native River, who took this three-mile heat last winter.
Alan King’s 13-year-old Valdez is another, while Gary Moore has put the former Gordon Elliott-trained A Toi Phil in both this race and the Game Spirit.