Nicky Henderson expects Altior to have a fight on his hands when he attempts to claim a record-equalling third successive victory in the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase at the Cheltenham Festival.
After losing his unbeaten record over fences when upped in trip on his return at Ascot in November, the 10-time Grade One winner returned to his imperious best as he reverted to two miles with a third straight win in the Game Spirit Chase at Newbury on Saturday.
Although Altior was promoted to favourite with many firms to clinch a third Champion Chase victory, Henderson has plenty of respect for those bidding to dethrone him.
The Seven Barrows handler said: “As it stands, I definitely think this is the best Queen Mother for some years.
“Altior will have a big fight on his hands in March, and we will be in for a hell of race, so hopefully we can have some nice ground for it.
“The race has been good to us in recent seasons, with Altior and before that Sprinter Sacre, and I’m very lucky to have found two horses like this.
“Everyone is saying about the same two horses, Defi Du Seuil and Chacun Pour Soi, being his main rivals – and we respect them – but we are glad to be back in the ball game.”
Altior’s latest success might not have been the most high profile of his career, but it was as significant as most for contrasting reasons in the eyes of Henderson.
He added: “It was an important day in his life, given all that had been said and written about him. Some said he was supposedly gone, but we never doubted him.
“He had a race at Ascot that took a lot out of him – and he had this abscess, which he had a lot of antibiotics for and also took a lot out of him.
“We’ve got that run under our belt now, which we had been trying to do for a long time, and it was difficult through no fault of his own.”
Having endured a stop-start season with his stable star, Henderson feels Altior still has plenty more to offer now that he is back on track.
He said: “I’ve no doubt there is more to come in the confidence department. He had a bad experience at Ascot – and with these intelligent horses, that sort of race can affect them.
“He was fairly fit (on Saturday), but he did have a blow between two and three out, and Nico had to suffer for a second before pressing the button and switching him on.
“Hopefully that has eliminated that now, and that blow he had won’t be there in March. That should put him spot on for four weeks on Wednesday.”
While Henderson blames himself for Altior’s defeat on his first start over two miles and five furlongs at Ascot, he feels he had little choice other than to go down that route.
He added: “It was the wrong race to run him in at Ascot, and that was my fault. I wouldn’t have normally run him – but so many people were looking forward to it, and we said we would go there, so we felt duty bound to do it.
“If we hadn’t run at Ascot, they would have burned the house down – because people came to see this ‘Rumble in the Jungle’, in which ours got well and truly knocked out.”
After watching Altior greeted with a warm reception back in the winner’s enclosure at Newbury, Henderson is thankful to those who came and supported him.
He added: “You are almost going back to the Sprinter Sacre days with him, and is great to see that people like him – because that is what racing is all about, these champion horses.
“It is always nice to see him well supported, and I really appreciate that from the public.”