Awesome Altior shreds Henderson's nerves on way to place in history books
Altior can win beautifully or win ugly. The champion two-mile steeplechaser joined the pantheon here with a defence of his title that called for tenacity as much as class.
They like easy winners here - witness Tiger Roll in the Cross Country - but they also love to see greatness earned in battle.
In the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase, the looming, graceful Altior lost the lead in the straight and then regained it, fighting off a challenger on either side and quickening through the middle to a record-equalling 18th consecutive jump-race win. Tomorrow's Gold Cup winner will do well to depose him as this year's Festival idol.
Nico de Boinville, who arrived stylishly late to win the previous race on William Henry, is the coolest cat in the weighing room, and was nerveless when Altior became the meat in a sandwich between Politologue and Sceau Royal.
The toll on Nicky Henderson, Altior's trainer, can be measured by the moisture in his eyes, and sometimes by full-blown tears.
Hitting "It's nice when it's over," said Henderson, who also trained the brilliant Sprinter Sacre, twice a winner of this championship for quick chasers. "It's like hitting your head against a brick wall. The only nice bit is when it stops."
But there is no stopping Altior. This length-and-three-quarters win added a second Queen Mother to the Supreme Novices' Hurdle and Arkle Chase he won on previous visits.
His 13th consecutive win over fences was his 18th over jumps and took his earnings to £1.14 million. A 19th would take him past Big Buck's, another Festival perennial.
Next season Henderson is thinking of moving this wonderfully fluid and imposing nine-year-old up in distance to contest the King George VI Chase, but a third Queen Mother would match the hat-trick of Badsworth Boy from 1983-'85.
"The winning streak he's put up has been just incredible," De Boinville said. "How many horses have done that? Big Buck's. He's in the highest echelon of racehorses."
The warmth generated by Henderson's 63rd Festival winner was recognisably Altior's full graduation to the ranks of revered Cheltenham heroes. He was always highly thought of, but perhaps the memory of Sprinter Sacre's brilliance was still too fresh for him to find his own space in history.
Earlier, Sprinter Sacre, the two-mile champion in 2013 and 2016, paraded for the crowds, and revived memories of his unlikely, emotional return from injury.
Altior, on the other hand, has kept pounding his contemporaries without interruption. His winning sequence started on October 10, 2015 and he went off here the 4/11 favourite despite recent, minor concerns about his jumping.
Needing a plan to depose the champion, the others tried to inflict a slow pace on the best horse.
"I was always confident I had the momentum there, but the race wasn't run to suit - at any stage," said De Boinville, whose mount made one mistake, at the water jump. "We've had to do a bit of the donkey work and everyone has tried to do me for toe [finishing speed]. He's very versatile. I don't mind, but I thought, 'Oh, here we go, I'm going to have to do the donkey work'."
Donkey work has seldom been carried out more classily. But when Sceau Royal jumped past Altior at the last fence, Henderson thought: "Hell's bells, we've got trouble here. It looked like it. The amazing thing is how he just picked up. It's what champions do." De Boinville reflected: "I think he was in great form coming into this race, but on that ground he was not at his best. I was just thinking it was a bit holding and tacky. Politologue is not a bad horse. He stays two-and-a-half miles. But we've won by [nearly] two lengths in the end."
Henderson has described as "torture" the wait for a top horse to come home victorious. De Boinville is too composed to succumb to anxiety: "No, you've got 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."
Henderson is an especially good custodian of these true champions. He said: "You just go back to the Sprinter [Sacre] days. How lucky are we? You retire one and you find another. You can't believe it's possible really. It makes it all worth while. He's some star. They've both done their bit for us - for racing, really. The people were fantastic. It's lovely when people take to horses, when horses become public."
In Australian Flat racing Winx has won 31 times in a row. No National Hunt horse could match that, but a 19th victory for Altior is a record worth having. "It's nice to do it, but then you wake up in the middle of the night and think about Winx and realise this is pretty insignificant," Henderson said.
Hardly. On unsuitably soft ground, with a tactical ambush, Altior scored the win that added courage and character to his CV. Henderson could not hide from the stress. "You're lucky to have them," he said, "but on the other hand they come with health warnings." (© Daily Telegraph, London)