Returning Native River shows the golden touch
There is little that fires the enthusiasm of National Hunt fans quite like a returning hero, and both Altior and Native River played their roles to perfection here after a combined total of 617 days away from the track.
Altior is now odds-on to win the Queen Mother Champion Chase after dismissing Politologue with ease in the Game Spirit Chase, while Native River, who took the Denman Chase, advanced to clear second-favourite for the Cheltenham Gold Cup on 16 March.
Nicky Henderson, Altior's trainer, suggested beforehand that if his outstanding two-miler was ever likely to lose his unbeaten record over fences, this was the race. Politologue, the race-fit second-favourite, took the Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown in December while Altior was recovering from a high-profile wind operation, and looked like a stern opponent for a favourite absent since April.
Politologue set out to make it a test, but Altior brushed him aside over the last two fences and won by four lengths with Nico de Boinville easing down. Politologue is now out to 10/1 for the Champion Chase with Altior favourite at 8/11. Min, a 100/30 chance from the Willie Mullins stable, is the only other runner at single-figure odds.
"If you'd dreamt what would happen, that would just about have been it," Henderson said. "He's just got class. His work is so easy. We're very lucky to have a wonderful bunch of horses, but we haven't got much that can go with him. He's done some good bits of work with other horses, but he's just better than them."
Native River, absent since finishing third behind Sizing John in the Cheltenham Gold Cup 11 months ago, also slipped straight back into his familiar routine. Colin Tizzard's chaser set off in front, galloping and jumping with the zest that saw him take the Welsh National under top weight last season, and while Brian Hughes and Cloudy Dream tried hard to close him down in the straight, a series of fine jumps took Native River further clear.
"At the cross fence [five out], you'd have said the two greys were travelling better than him," Tizzard said. "Then suddenly, he's eight lengths clear. We've seen that with him all last year. He's hardly blowing and it couldn't have gone any better.
"He's an exceptional horse. If the cards had been dealt differently we wouldn't have waited this long [for his seasonal debut], but we had to wait to let that ligament heal or we might not have had anything left for Cheltenham.
"He's always come on for racing and his second run [of the season] has always been his best. He hasn't had a hard race, and he's up against a couple who have had some real humdingers in the last few weeks. He'll be going in there the freshest, that's for sure."
Kalashnikov became the fifth novice in the last six years to win the Betfair Hurdle, finishing four-and-a-half lengths clear of Bleu Et Rouge, and could now head for the Supreme Novice Hurdle on the opening day at Cheltenham, while Saint Calvados, the easy winner of the Kingmaker Chase at Warwick, is a 7/1 chance to take the race that follows, the Arkle Trophy Novice Chase.
At Naas, meanwhile, Benie Des Dieux made it three wins in as many starts over fences in the BBA Ireland Limited Opera Hat Mares Chase.
The seven-year-old was a winner for trainer Willie Mullins on her Irish debut in December 2016 but was then off the track for a year before making a victorious return at Carlisle.
Sent off the evens favourite to claim this Listed event, Benie Des Dieux raced prominently under David Mullins and only stablemate Asthuria laid down a challenge to her.
The pair jumped the last together, but Benie Des Dieux asserted on the run to the line, coming home two-and-a-half lengths clear with Dinaria Des Obeaux back in third.
The winning rider said: "She travelled nearly a bit too well, but she's so quick over a fence.
"She was a bit keen there on the soft ground but it was just her class coming through. I was making ground everywhere and I couldn't really get her to come back.
"She's a pleasure to ride and so easy to have anything to do with.
"She's so quick over a fence that she could do anything. She could come back jumping hurdles as she nearly jumps her fences like a hurdle."
Benie Des Dieux is a best priced 16/1 for the OLBG Mares' Hurdle at next month's Cheltenham Festival, but as short as 4/1 with bookmakers offering the non-runner no bet concession.
She can also be backed at 16/1 for the Ryanair Chase at Prestbury Park.
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