Being crowned leading rider at the Cheltenham Festival requires the backing of a strong team – and after lifting last year’s title, Nico de Boinville looks perfectly poised to challenge for the coveted prize again.
As number one to five-time champion trainer Nicky Henderson, the 30-year-old has a host of big rides to look forward to – headed by none other than Altior, who will be seeking a record-equalling third victory in the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase.
Having seen his unbeaten record over jumps ended by Cyrname at Ascot in November, the Patricia Pugh-owned 10-year-old looked like his old self reverting back to two miles with a third straight victory in the Game Spirit Chase at Newbury last month.
De Boinville said: “Altior’s season has been well documented in the press. What he did last time was show signs of his old self returning.
“The way he put it to bed in the end was typical Altior. People expect him to be winning these races by huge distances, but he never actually does.
“He is the champion and you become that by doing what he does all the time. He is unbeaten over two miles and has won 20 of his 21 starts over jumps.
“I think last time out was a massive confidence-booster for him and he believes he is top dog again. He seems to be A1 going into it.”
While favourite to continue his domination of the two-mile chasing division, Altior will not be starting at the prohibitive odds he has done in his two previous victories in the race, due to multiple Grade One winners Defi Du Seuil and Chacun Pour Soi lining up in opposition.
De Boinville said: “We fully know what we are going into and we have some stiff opposition in Chacun Pour Soi and Defi Du Seuil. It could turn out to be the race of the meeting.
“He has got his certain style of racing and the Old Course is not quite suited to his way of running. If it was run on the New Course that might make things a bit easier for him.
“I think the Game Spirit was a great trial for him, in allowing him to get back to where he should be. It would be fantastic equalling the record number of wins in the race, but let’s not write that page before it has happened.”
It is five years since De Boinville steered the Mark Bradstock-trained Coneygree to glory in the Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup and in Altior’s stablemate Santini he appears to have strong claims of doubling his tally of victories in the blue riband.
After scrambling home on his return at Sandown, last year’s RSA runner-up demonstrated his Gold Cup credentials when flooring Bristol De Mai at Cheltenham in January.
De Boinville said: “There was a big improvement from Sandown to Cheltenham, and he showed what we believed he could do.
“He would have learnt an awful lot the other day and don’t forget he hasn’t had that many starts as a chaser, so I think he will progress again.
I think he has all the right credentials
“It was good he got into a duel like that, for his own mental belief that he can go and do it. I think he has all the right credentials for the race and I am looking forward to him.”
Giving De Boinville added confidence is the preparation Santini has enjoyed in the lead up to the Gold Cup, which is in stark contrast to the interrupted run he had heading into the RSA 12 months ago.
He said: “Last year was not how you wanted to be going into Cheltenham by missing his prep in the Reynoldstown, but it showed how good the team at home are to get him into the form to run to that level.
“At the moment the prep this year has gone swimmingly and fingers crossed it continues so that we come to the Gold Cup in great shape.”
Helping the father-of-one lift the leading rider title last year was Pentland Hills’ victory in the Triumph Hurdle and while the five-year-old is winless in two starts this season, De Boinville is hopeful a recent wind operation can help ignite his season in the Unibet Champion Hurdle.
He said: “Although he wasn’t making a noise, he just pulled up in front at Haydock last time, which he wasn’t doing last season, so we have tinkered with his wind – it might make a difference, it might not, but we have crossed every T and dotted every I.
“He has to progress again and improve, but he seems to be working well and Kevin Mooney, who rides his work, seems to be happy with him, so I’m looking forward to getting back on him.”
Few horses will head into this year’s Festival possessing as much potential as Shishkin, who will bid to get De Boinville and Henderson off to a flying start in the curtain-raising Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.
De Boinville said: “We have been very happy with him and I think he progressed again from Newbury to Huntingdon, and it was good to see the way he put the race to bed over two-miles-three that day – you have to really stay in the Supreme.
“He has got a fantastic set of gear changes on testing conditions, which we saw at Newbury, and that is what you want as the Tuesday it will be softer than the other days.
“He is a horse that has loads of potential and will be even better next year, but he has loads of speed and stays as well.
“He has answered every call so far and it would be lovely to think that will continue in the Supreme.”