Nicky Henderson returns Altior to the fray at Ascot on Saturday as the superstar two-miler seeks to extend his remarkable winning run over jumps in a three-runner renewal of the Matchbook Clarence House Chase.
Only four were left in the early-closing Grade One at the five-day stage and when three-time winner of the race Un De Sceaux failed to appear among the declarations on Thursday morning, Altior’s task was made even easier.
As a result, the nine-year-old looks like having only to avoid accident to stretch his unbeaten sequence to 17 – which would be one adrift of the mark set by the mighty Big Buck’s.
Altior was far too good for his rivals at Kempton last time out
“He won’t mind good ground. I don’t think it will get quick, but if they have a drop of rain, that is grand and will be fine,” said Henderson.
“There is nothing I can do about the field. Nobody wants to see a three-horse race and it is a shame. You get good sponsorship and prize-money, but we have to have a route for these top horses to take them to the top races.
“The last thing I’m going to say is bring it back to handicap as these Grade One and Grade Two races are the Pattern and you have to give these horses a route. If they are going to cut up like this, it is a pity.”
Nicky Henderson's superstar got the better of Un De Sceaux in the Tingle Creek on his seasonal debut
Last year, when being prepared for the Tingle Creek, Altior was found to have a minor breathing problem which needed tweaking, meaning he faced a rush preparation for Cheltenham.
“We have slightly changed our plan this year – going to the Tingle Creek and the Desert Orchid, then coming here. We thought we would let him have three runs, freshen him up and let him come back into Cheltenham with a view to doing something afterwards,” said Henderson.
“He was electric around Kempton. I know he didn’t beat the world that day, but he was pretty flawless.”
All the talk has been about stepping Altior up in trip, given he has very little to prove at two miles, but the Seven Barrows handler looks like putting that on hold until next season’s King George VI Chase.
Relive Altior's superb success in the Champion Chase last year
“He is staying at two miles for the time being and if you finish up with that record intact you would have to think about what everyone wants us to do and think about the King George, but let’s get through this season,” said Henderson.
“The King George is the obvious place to try three miles, I would say Aintree, but the owners are not particularly keen on that.
“They keep coming, but he keeps beating them. What more can he do? I want to see him stay unbeaten over fences, but I’m not wrapping him up in cotton wool as we are coming out three weeks after the Desert Orchid and we have had three really quite quick runs.”
Colin Tizzard’s Fox Norton has talent of his own and was second in the Champion Chase to Special Tiara in 2017, before beating Un De Sceaux at Punchestown.
However, he has not run since last season’s King George and appears to face a mammoth task after such a lay-off.
“We just need to get him out racing. We need two runs before Cheltenham,” said Tizzard.
“We’ve seen before he needs a run or two to take on the likes of Altior and he can’t turn up there with no runs, so we have to start somewhere.
“He has been good and been out twice a day. We have got him fit, but it is match practice he needs.
“We want safe ground.”
The field is completed by Paul Nicholls’ Diego Du Charmil, who chased home Altior at a distance of 19 lengths in the Desert Orchid Chase but meets him on 3lb worse terms.