Classy Altior can take his place among legends
It has been a topsy-turvy winter - dry when it should have been wet, warm when it should have been cold, good ground when it should have been hock-deep mud - but Altior, the embodiment of equine athleticism, can overcome the proper National Hunt conditions forecast today to win his second Champion Chase.
In the Cheltenhams of my youth, when it seemed that there was always water lying on the course and horses could still run on the first day and be pulled out again on the third (and win), I remember Chinrullah, trained by the recently departed Mick O'Toole, winning the 1980 Champion Chase.
He had his tail tied up like a hunter to stop it being weighed down with mud, and perhaps it is because we have not seen as much soft ground this winter as we normally do that we are making a bigger deal out of it than we might otherwise. However, it will be nothing that Altior cannot cope with.
Seldom has a horse had a suit of armour with so few chinks in it and while good ground is more conducive to speed and the power his hind legs generate as he pushes off at an obstacle, Altior's victory in this season's Tingle Creek on Sandown's soft ground in December and, indeed, in last year's Champion Chase, reminded one of the adage that good horses are supposed to handle all conditions.
But having lost his position as the highest-rated two-mile chaser in Britain or Ireland to Cyrname, a horse which does not go left-handed so skips today's race, Nicky Henderson's nine-year-old, unbeaten in 17 starts, has a little bit of a point to prove today.
A second Champion Chase would equal Sprinter Sacre, the horse by which any two-mile chaser at Seven Barrows will always be measured, and in terms of achievement it would put him up there with Master Minded, Moscow Flyer, Viking Flagship and the two great two-milers of the 1980s, Barnbrook Again and Pearlyman.
This season his only deviation from perfection was to jump left-handed, markedly so at some fences, in the Clarence House Chase at Ascot in January. It still did not stop him winning with his head in his chest and, though it can occasionally be a sign of some muscular problem, Henderson was quick to dismiss it as an irrelevance.
Last year his preparation for the Champion was hurried after a wind operation, and he hit a flat spot turning in, adding a dramatic pause to an otherwise certain result, before he sprouted wings between the final two fences and stayed on up the hill so strongly that he beat Min by seven lengths. There have been no flat spots this season.
Though this is traditionally one of the Festival's great championship races, it nevertheless appears that only Altior could fabricate his own defeat. If the forecast high winds stop him they will have stopped everyone else and merely delayed the inevitable. He is the nearest thing to a certainty this week. Min must be favourite to follow him home again.
Altior is not the only equine superstar on show today. Some racing professionals still dismiss the Glenfarclas Cross Country as an opportunity to find a nice cup of tea but for Gordon Elliott it is just another chance for a winner.
The favourite Tiger Roll, the horse Michael O'Leary affectionately described as a "little rat of a thing" after he won the Grand National last April, is seven-eighths of the way to becoming one of the jumping game's bona fide greats.
He has already won three different races at the Festival - the Triumph, the National Hunt Chase and last year's cross-country - but his enthusiasm knows no bounds. In a warm-up for this he won on his return to hurdles, and next month he has a good chance of becoming the first horse to win back-to-back Grand Nationals since Red Rum.
He will not be great value, however, and his dangers include Auvergnat and Josies Orders, trained by the 'king of the banks' Enda Bolger, and Fact Of The Matter, which showed his liking for this event, finishing first and second in two starts here, albeit in handicaps.
Elliott, Tiger Roll's trainer, can start the day on the right note by winning the Ballymore Hurdle with the unbeaten Battleoverdoyen, which, like a lot of his rivals in this race, looks a chaser in the making. .
The Gold Cup horses of the future contest the RSA Chase and though there is a lot of confidence in Ireland behind Delta Work, the Paul Nicholls-trained Topofthegame, ironically the only horse in the race yet to win over fences, can land this.
According to Harry Cobden he has come on a lot from his defeat by La Bague Au Roi at Kempton and, though the form lines with Delta Work suggest there is little to separate them, if he has improved then it should tip him the advantage. (© Daily Telegraph, London)
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