A flick back through the longest winning sequences of some of National Hunt racing’s greatest performers helps put Altior’s record-breaking exploits into perspective.
Best Mate and Cue Card have been among the most popular horses this century, yet neither ever won more than four races in succession. Five-time King George VI Chase winner and dual Cheltenham Gold Cup hero Kauto Star surprisingly never managed more than six victories on the spin, while Desert Orchid and Moscow Flyer stalled at seven.
The legendary Arkle, the greatest of them all? He would often try to concede lumps of weight in handicaps and, as a consequence, never got beyond nine. Denman, Hurricane Fly, Quevega and Un De Sceaux managed the same.
Annie Power, Faugheen, Istabraq and Sprinter Sacre all got to ten; and then we get to the most prolific of them all in Buveur D’Air (11), Honeysuckle (12 and counting), Bula (13), Douvan (14), Sir Ken (16) and Big Buck’s (18).
But the ultimate winter win machine was Altior, who won a record 19 consecutive victories and effectively allowed his adoring supporters to print their own money during a glorious four-year period where he was invincible. Had you bet £20 on him for win No 1 of the 19, then played up the winnings every time he subsequently ran, you’d have got up to a profit of almost £84,000 before perhaps losing it all. It would have been a fun journey.
He wasn’t asked to tackle handicaps and on many occasions few dared take him on, but four of those 19 wins were achieved in the cauldron of the Cheltenham Festival. And let’s not forget he also spent most of his career running in two-mile chases, where there is no room for hesitation or error.
The 11-year-old, whose retirement was announced on Monday afternoon, has set the bar almost impossibly high for those seeking to upstage him.
To get past Altior, at least 40 miles will have to be galloped and a minimum of about 160 obstacles negotiated. Then, there is the opposition, plus the banana skins that lurk around every corner over jumps and, of course, just plain rotten bad luck. Off days? There is no scope for those, either.
Thoroughbreds running on the Flat have achieved longer unbeaten runs but over jumps there are hurdles, fences, much longer distances and often deep winter ground to overcome. They are hostages to fortune from start to finish but Altior seemed immune to all the variables.
When leading staying hurdler Big Buck’s was retired in 2014, it seemed most unlikely that his record would come under immediate threat. After all, he had taken the record off Sir Ken, who had shone in the early 1950s.
But Altior, trained with precision by Nicky Henderson, was waiting in the wings.
He began his win spree on October 10, 2015, when landing a novices’ hurdle at Chepstow. He won all five of his races over hurdles and then his first 14 over fences.
The majority of those successes were gained in imperious fashion but he was prepared to dig deep and win ugly when required, including in the 2018 Champion Chase when he looked in big trouble turning for home and was matched at 15-2 in-running on Betfair.
Altior equalled Big Buck’s sequence when successfully defending his Champion Chase crown the following year, after another scare, and then the following month made it a magical 19 in a row with a third Celebration Chase win at Sandown under regular rider Nico de Boinville, whose role in his success story should not be underestimated.
His owners, the Pughs, shunned publicity but it didn’t matter. Altior’s dazzling performances spoke for themselves.
It couldn’t last forever, of course, and the flawless run ended when he was upped to 2m5f at Ascot in late November, 2019. Cyrname simply ran him into submission, giving him a belated taste of his own medicine.
Did Altior leave a little of his spirit behind him that day? Henderson never forgave himself for running him. The ground was soft for his first run beyond much further than 2m, plus he was making his seasonal reappearance against a high-quality opponent.
It was meant to be a stepping stone to the King George VI Chase, over 3m the following month, but he ended up having a bruising race. He only ran once more that campaign, when winning at Newbury despite not being at his best.
Altior beats Un De Sceaux in the 2018 Tingle Creek
Last season, he raced just twice more and was beaten each time, with cheekpieces being equipped. It was clear that the flame that once burned so vividly was flickering. Niggling setbacks, missed races and frustration crept in.
But let's not dwell on that. Nothing will ever dim the memory of Altior in full flight, soaring over fences for fun and leaving inferior rivals trailing in his wake. Those four Festival triumphs were all treasures, while his defeat of another wonderful warrior In Un De Sceaux, in the 2018 Tingle Creek, was a personal favourite.
The Win Machine has been retired. Long live The Win Machine. And good luck to those with designs on winning 20 successive races.
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