What next for Altior? – Post-race verdict on Henderson star’s defeat in Saturday’s Christy1965 Chase

Altior (centre) battles back bravely to win the 2019 Champion Chase.Altior (centre) battles back bravely to win the 2019 Champion Chase.

Its almost twenty four hours since Saturday’s big Ascot clash for the Christy1965 Chase which saw Paul Nicholls’ Cyrname inflict a first-ever defeat over obstacles on dual-Champion Chase winner Altior, and having had some time to reflect and revisit the contest a couple of times since I decided to write up my thoughts on the much-hyped clash.

I’ve had a good discussion with friend and colleague Daryl Carter (@darylcarter7) on Twitter which readers can follow here on the performance of Altior on Saturday and his possible future plans, and Daryl has given his own excellent analysis of Altior’s defeat. But my thoughts on the race and what could be next for Altior are below, and I believe that Nicky Henderson may be making a rare mistake if he elects to continue down the path to the King George VI Chase at Kempton with his star chaser.

THE BUILD UP TO THE BIG RACE

Perhaps on another day, Henderson might have been tempted to take Altior out of the race on account of the ground and stepping up in trip, and the Seven Barrows maestro probably wouldn’t have wanted his stable star to endure a muddy slog on his reappearance.

With earlier accounts on the state of the ground likely to have been received, it might have been the case that the pre-race hype from the media perhaps had a negative influence and might have forced the trainer’s hand into running Altior even if it may have gone against his own judgement.

A contest like the Peterborough Chase in early-December might have been a more suitable target had Altior come out of Saturday’s contest, and Henderson may have preferred to wait a couple of weeks where the potential for better ground and a furlong less to travel over a less stiff track might have been more beneficial with the opportunity to get another couple of weeks’ work into the High Chaparral gelding.

Nicky Henderson

Nicky Henderson

THE RACE – HOW IT PLAYED OUT

Both Altior and Cyrname came into the race for their respective seasonal debuts on the back of a wind surgery during the summer, but the younger Nicholls horse had looked more forward than the Henderson star according to paddock watchers.

In the race itself, it always appeared that Cyrname was travelling just that half-stride quicker throughout and he took a length out of Altior more than once at his fences. Not for the first time, Altior didn’t appear fully at ease on the Ascot track and who can forget his wayward performance at the Berkshire venue twelve months previously where he jumped markedly left throughout his Clarence House Chase success over Fox Norton.

Altior was stepping into the unknown over the 2m5f trip, having not raced beyond 2m 2f in his career to that point. That run however came in a Kempton match with Black Corton and probably revealed little, and the jury has to remain out on whether or not the High Chaparral gelding really wants more of a test of stamina.

Soft ground shouldn’t have been a problem, and indeed Altior has plenty of winning form to his name when some juice has been in the ground. However, it was perhaps a tough ask to expect him to be fully effective in what looked testing conditions upped markedly in distance on his reappearance against a progressive younger rival.

Harry Cobden on Cyrname did everything right from the front, dictating a relatively steady pace and gradually winding up the race before asking his mount for everything on the run to the second last.

The young jockey knew his partner stayed the longer trip, and he played to that fact to make use of his horse’s stamina. Jumping with more fluency than Altior who was untidy at a couple, he looked to have the measure of the dual-Champion Chase winner from some way out.

Altior in contrast had looked a shade keen early, and he wasn’t always slick at his fences where he gave away some ground more than once and appeared again to tend to jump to his left around Ascot’s fences.

Nico de Boinville had been niggling on him from a fair distance out to keep tabs on the bold-jumping front runner and he finished a very tired horse, although to his credit he kept on well at one pace. He’ll certainly come on for the run – as will Cyrname – but having had such a hard race it remains to be seen what has been taken out of him in that slog.

Cyrname ended Altior’s unbeaten record over obstacles with a solid success in the Christy 1965 Chase.

WHERE NEXT FOR ALTIOR?

Nicky Henderson has made noises about a rematch with Cyrname in the upcoming King George VI Chase, but there has to be a doubt over Altior’s ability to see out three miles although if he’s going to get three miles anywhere it might well be at the relatively benign Sunbury venue.

That said, the race’s history is littered with converted two mile chasers who have tried to make the step up to three miles, and by and large such a move hasn’t worked out for most. Vautour went closest to ending a dreadful statistic, and Waiting Patiently was fancied to win twelve months ago before crashing out having been brought down by the fall of Bristol De Mai.

The fact through remains though that most King George VI Chase winners have been tested at three miles previously to a crack at Kempton’s showpiece race – a statistic that neither Altior or Cyrname can lay claim to – and if either is to win the King George VI Chase then they have to overcome that huge negative.

Certainly on Saturday’s performance, Cyrname would be the one most likely to find the step up to three miles easier given he didn’t appear to be stopping at the end of the 2m5f at Ascot; but it will demand another forward step taking on a field full of established Grade One performers as well as fellow rising stars such as Lostintraslation who was an impressive winner of the Betfair Chase at Haydock on Saturday.

The options for Paul Nicholls’ charge should he fail to win the King George VI Chase are more numerous than those facing Altior should the Henderson star fail to deliver again at Kempton over an even longer trip, and if that were the case then a return to two miles and a crack at a third Champion Chase could be the only viable option for Altior.

But would Altior be as good dropping back to two miles having been trained for and had runs this term over longer? It would certainly be an unorthodox preparation for one who might be forced to step back down in trip for another crack at a Champion Chase, and there aren’t many opportunities for Henderson to prepare Altior for a possible return to two miles with perhaps only the Clarence House Chase at Ascot a viable target should the King George VI Chase experiment fail.

Recent renewals of the Champion Chase haven’t been great though, and he made heavy weather of last season’s win to retain his crown. The latest renewal of the Champion Chase could prove to be the strongest in years which may see a resurgent Douvan in opposition, and potentially the likes of Defi Du Seuil, Le Richebourg, A Plus Tard, Chacun Pour Soi, Min and even a clash with Cyrname again.

Altior would very much be the old guard taking on younger pretenders which as a ten-year old come Festival time defeat might spell the beginning of the end to his dominance with only Moscow Flyer, Sprinter Sacre and Special Tiara winning as ten-year olds and older since the turn of the millenium.

A resurgent Douvan would be a tough nut to crack in the Champion Chase.

BRIAN HEALY’S ALTIOR VERDICT

Nicky Henderson knows the time of day, and as a multiple-times Champion Trainer as well as having trained more Cheltenham Festival winners than anyone aside from Willie Mullins, he’ll have a better idea than anyone over the merits of Altior and his potential to remain a force over further.

For me though, he just doesn’t look one who will excel for a longer trip and is in danger of falling between two stools, potentially not having the pace nowadays for two miles against younger horses but also having to answer question marks over his stamina when faced with more sterner tests as was the case on Saturday which he may not have the answers to. I’m not entirely convinced he saw out the 2m5f, but that may simply be down to a lack of race-fitness, and Cyrname certainly wasn’t going away from him at the finish.

Three miles is another question, but the proof of the pudding will of course be in the eating, and Henderson is on record as fancying another crack at Cyrname in the King George VI Chase. My personal view is that Henderson should consider abandoning that idea though, as there is plenty of negatives for Altior to overcome if he’s to emerge victorious, and instead prepare his stable star for a third crack at the Champion Chase.

Kempton and the King George VI Chase is only one month away, and he had a very hard race at Ascot which may have left a mark and taken more out of him than we might suspect. To then potentially scupper Altior’s season in what could be a fruitless attempt at three miles seems to me to be a strange way to go with his stable star chaser and one possibly driven by media pressure.

Punchestown hosts Grade One action on Sunday with the Morgiana Hurdle.

Kempton’s King George VI Chase could prove a hot contest and a needless test for Altior which could scupper his season.

In the cold light of day, and all things considered Altior may be better served in my opinion – for this season at least – being kept to two miles, and I’d prefer to see him instead having a prep run for Cheltenham in either the Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton or Ascot’s Clarence House Chase and then all roads leading to Cheltenham for a Champion Chase title defence where he could become only the second triple-winner of that race following Badsworth Boy if successful.

That prize in my opinion should be incentive enough to keep him at the lesser trip this campaign; but kept to longer trips, I fear that a defeat in the King George VI Chase could leave Henderson with little choice but to change tack and reroute Altior back to two miles. A failed attempt at the Kempton feature could well kill Altior’s season, and while he should see out 2m 4f when fully fit, he doesn’t strike me as one really looking for a test at three-miles, especially one where he could clash with the improving Lostintranslation, defending champion Clan Des Obeaux, Frodon, Bristol De Mai and other proven stayers in opposition.

It might well transpire that having had such a messy prep in the first half of the jumps season training for and tackling the longer trips with little success should he fail at Kempton that his chances of a third Champion Chase could find themselves on shaky ground, especially if facing a potentially top-class field stronger than he’s faced in either of his two previous victories in the Cheltenham showpiece.

A failed King George VI Chase attempt may see him leave his chances of a third Champion Chase crown behind him at the Sunbury venue, and it is crucial now for Altior’s season that Henderson makes the right decision with his stable star regarding his future.