By Geoffrey Riddle at Newbury
Altior has been missed.
It had been 287 days since he posted his last and 11th victory at Sandown and, following his smooth success in the Betfair Exchange Chase at Newbury on Saturday, his groom put his rug on in the winner’s enclosure the wrong way around.
It was left to Nicky Henderson himself to iron out the minor issue but afterwards there was no hiding the fact that team Seven Barrows do not expect there to be any rustiness at Cheltenham in four weeks. In any department.
Altior had undergone just three proper gallops since he slammed a disappointing Special Tiara in April, but it was the power of the engine that barely got out of third gear that was so impressive.
The sight of Altior and Politologue jumping the last in tandem was a sight to behold, but Altior did it on the bit and when it mattered Nico De Boinville nudged his partner to show the crowd a little of what to expect next month. The answer was immediate and the four-length win was achieved with minimal fuss.Altior was sent off at 1-3 at Newbury on Saturday (PA)
The eight-year-old had not even got as far as a gallop before he made a noise on his first turf foray of the season in Lambourn in November that required a wind operation. It is quite clear, therefore, that there is much more to come. The going at Prestbury Park is almost surely going to be quicker than the soft Berkshire ground, here, too.
Altior is now rightly 4-5 for the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase and will almost certainly go off the shortest priced favourite for the two-mile crown since stablemate Sprinter Sacre was hammered down to 1-4 in 2013.
The list of potential rivals standing in his way is not long. Min, who Altior crushed by seven lengths in Supreme Novices Hurdle in 2016, is his nearest challenger in the betting at 3-1, while Politologue, the best of the British, is now out to 10-1. Only a miraculous recovery by Douvan threatens to prevent Altior moving in to that select pantheon of horses who have achieved three Festival wins.
Henderson was as pleased as punch, and reported that Altior had not made a noise.
“If you had dreamt up how it was going to go today that was perfection," he purred.
"Was I nervous? Yes. He was more vulnerable today than he was ever going to be.
“Hopefully we can go there happy.”
Twelve months ago Altior won this race before going on to win at the Festival, whereas Native River could not burnish his victory here in to gold when third to Sizing John and Minella Rocco in the Blue Riband.
Quite how he might turn that form around in the Gold Cup is open to debate but he shrugged off his ligament problem, and his 330-day layoff, in some style under Richard Johnson in the Betfair Denman Chase.
Native River is now a best-priced 13-2 for the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup, but although the 12-length hammering of the non-staying Cloudy Dream looks good on paper, unlike Altior his performance was hardly faultless. Native River is still only eight, mind you, but he fiddled the 12th and reached for the next which, if repeated on March 16, are mistakes that will almost certainly leave him in the wake of favourite Might Bite. Naturally, Colin Tizzard has his own ideas.
“It was a pleasure to see him like that, he looked the picture of health,” the trainer said. “We’ve been to Larkhill for a gallop three times but that is him done now, we can do the rest at home. We were just trying to catch up, we wanted an away day and can get him fit up our gallop.
“I was worried it was going to be frosted off and he wouldn’t get a run before the Gold Cup. He hasn’t had a hard race and has hardly blown. It couldn’t have gone any better. He is an exceptional horse. He is always good second time out.
“He will come on for this – his second run has always been his best. Some of the other Gold Cup horses have had some real humdingers lately, haven’t they? He’ll go in the freshest, won’t he?
“Going in to Cheltenham last year we had 52 runners without a winner and we weren’t in the best of form and that might have been why he did not get up the hill.”
Where Kalashnikov could not go through the heavy going at Sandown in the Tolworth Hurdle he sluiced through the soft ground here to demolish a competitive field.
Prior to the race Murphy had been undecided as to whether the Skybet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle or the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle over five furlongs further would be best for the winner. There is no indecision now.
Although no Betfair Hurdle winner has ever prevailed in the Supreme, Quinlan feels that Kalashnikov has the tactical pace to deal with possible rivals Getabird and If The Cap Fits.
“On today’s evidence he obviously has been pressured early on but at Wetherby and Doncaster the speed he showed late on was phenomenal,” Quinlan said. "On spring ground he will be better.”
We will soon see.
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