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Nicky Henderson knows all about saddling a hero in apparent decline to win a Queen Mother Champion Chase at the Cheltenham Festival and he firmly believes Altior has claims of doing just that next month.
The two-time Queen Mother kingpin, unbeaten in five career starts at Cheltenham, is still on course to run in the two-mile showpiece on March 17th despite a shock defeat in last month’s seasonal bow at Kempton.
Old Altior still there
If he can regain the Champion Chase crown, won last year by Politologue after Altior was an 11th-hour withdrawal, Henderson’s superstar will become the first 11-year-old winner of the race since the great Moscow Flyer in 2005.
Altior had won a perfect 19-19 starts over jumps prior to his defeat to Cyrname at Ascot in November 2019, a race in which he tackled 2m5f for the first – and only – time in his career.
Henderson has never made a secret of the fact he got that decision wrong in choosing to face Paul Nicholls-trained course-and-distance specialist on ground softer than ideal with Altior not at peak fitness on what was his seasonal bow.
Though he rebounded last season to win the Game Spirit Chase at Newbury in February, a setback in the latter stages of his preparation meant he missed Cheltenham in March and this relinquished his crown.
Having skipped an intended comeback in the Tingle Creek at Sandown early last month, Altior suffered a surprise reverse behind Nube Negra in the Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton over Christmas.
He never appeared to be relishing the race that afternoon, but plugged on valiantly to finish second. Henderson sees progress in Altior at home since then, enough to give him confidence for Cheltenham.
“He’s gone back to doing all his work with his head on the floor. He always used to do that and it was noticeable earlier in the year that he was carrying it much higher, like a normal horse,” said Henderson.
“Now he’s gone back to tanking along with his head down and I’m very pleased to see him like that.
“He’ll always go through that spot in a race where you think ‘are you going all right’, but he soon answers the question – and I don’t think he’s lost that.”
Champion Chase only show in town
Henderson famously brought Sprinter Sacre back from near retirement for a fantastic campaign in 2015/16 that yielded an emotional regaining of a Queen Mother Champion Chase crown that he had first won three years earlier.
That victory immediately went down in Cheltenham Festival folklore and Altior’s two wins (2018, 2019) have helped Henderson to his joint-record tally of six wins in the two-mile Championship contest – a record he shares with legendary Irish handler Tom Dreaper and Paul Nicholls – who won last year with Politologue.
There’s been talk of possibly going up in distance again for the Ryanair Chase but Henderson is all but ruling that out. A veteran he may now be, but the trainer feels Altior still has a fighter’s chance of becoming only the second horse to win a third Queen Mother after Badsworth Boy in the 1980s – despite big-race partner Nico de Boinville lobbying to go up in trip.
“There’s lots of conjecture about whether he’ll run in the Champion Chase or the Ryanair, but unless something categorically comes up and says this horse wants two and a half (miles), I’m expecting to run him in the Champion Chase,” he told Sky Sports Racing.
“Nico is very keen to go two and a half, but I do think – and maybe I’m in dreamland – that there is something about him just at the moment that is different to how he was before Christmas.”