Altior digs deep to retain Champion title
The latest number one against his name tells nothing like the whole story.
More than once it seemed this was the day when the glorious victory streak would come to an end. If we thought that, Altior plainly did not.
For the 18th consecutive race, and for the fourth time at the Cheltenham Festival, the supreme champion of two-mile chasing did the only thing he now knows how to do. He made us sweat and put his trainer through torment but he won.
For one horrible moment it appeared he might not even finish. The water jump is the smallest fence Cheltenham owns but it was where Altior made the biggest mistake of his life. Perhaps he was just teasing us, as perhaps he was teasing Sceau Royal when permitting him to race into the lead on the short run between the final two fences.
The situation looked precarious but no horse finishes a race as strongly as Altior. For that reason Patricia Pugh’s pride and joy is now a dual winner of the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase.
He also shares the world record for consecutive successes over jumps, having equalled the mark set by another quadruple festival title holder, the mighty Big Buck’s. The workmanlike manner in which 17 wins became 18 might give hope to those who take him on at Sandown next month. Let them hope. Let the rest of us admire a superstar of our time.
“It’s almost like he doesn’t know how to lose,” said rider Nico de Boinville. But the prospect of losing stared trainer Nicky Henderson in the face as he watched the closing stages begin to unfold.
“The other horse looked to land running and he must have headed him,” said Henderson. “I thought, ‘Hells bells, we’ve got trouble here’, but it’s amazing how he picked up. He knew what he had to do.
“It was a cracking good race for everyone else. For me it was hell. It is seriously like hitting your head against a brick wall. The only nice bit is when it stops.”
De Boinville, whose mount was ultimately well on top of Politologue and Sceau Royal at the line, found the experience much less traumatic.
He explained: “You have to remember that when you’re riding you’re so in the moment you don’t have time to think about anything else. That’s why it’s good therapy, I suppose.
“I thought he’d always find that extra gear – and I always trust in that gear. I don’t know where it comes from. He’s a fantastic horse and has pulled it out of the fire again. He pulled up a tired horse but is phenomenal.
“Every race he runs seems to enhance his reputation. He goes from win to win. The winning streak he’s put up is incredible. He’s in the highest echelons of racehorses. I’m sure when I retire I’ll look back on these days and think, ‘Wow, that was fantastic’. I’ll have fond memories but we’ll keep kicking on.”
He and Henderson also have fond memories of Sprinter Sacre, whose own name is stamped twice on the Champion Chase roll of honour. One of the all-time greats had strolled around the Cheltenham paddock earlier in the day, no less gorgeous than when his exploits on the track made us fall head over heels in love.
“I don’t think I rode Sprinter Sacre at his peak, but I’m riding Altior at his peak, which means, for me, he’s the best I’ve ridden,” said De Boinville. For his boss, it may never be possible to rank the champion of now above the champion from then. Why should he ever have to?
“To have had two horses consecutively come into your life like Sprinter and Altior makes us very lucky people,” said Henderson.
“They’ve both done their bit for us – and I think for racing too. It’s lovely when people take to horses like that and they genuinely become public horses. We’re lucky to have them but they come with health warnings.”
On balance, though, Altior is surely good for the health. He most definitely makes the heart beat faster.