Altior can bounce back from injury hiccup and reward punters
Douvan returns to track a year after champion chase flop, but beating Altior is a big ask
Nico de Boinville riding Altior to win the bet365 Celebration Chase at Sandown Park in April 2017. Photograph: Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images
The foot scare that briefly threatened Altior’s expected Queen Mother Champion Chase coronation will prey on many minds, although, as Cheltenham clouds go, this one could have a potential silver lining for punters.
Altior has been odds-on for weeks to lift a two-mile crown that has seemed almost his Cheltenham destiny for two years.
However, Nicky Henderson’s Monday bombshell that the former Supreme and Arkle winner was lame and required a poultice to draw pus from a foot inevitably saw Altior drift in the betting.
Odds-against were widely available before Henderson gave the green light to run on Tuesday morning. How the market reacts on Wednesday to Altior having had to have his foot regularly dipped in buckets of salt water just 48 hours before the biggest race of his career will be fascinating.
It’s certainly a concern, although there may be a danger in overplaying it as stone-bruise type injuries are a perennial problem when dealing with horses, a point Henderson has been eager to make.
The 2016 Derby hero Harzand famously had his foot in a bucket of ice just a couple of hours before his finest Epsom moment. He’d ripped a shoe off on the morning of the race and was described as being very sore. Yet he still won.
Another classic winner, Don’t Forget Me, was also touch-and-go to run in the 1987 2,000 Guineas and had one of his feet in an ice-bucket practically up to when the saddle was put on him at Newmarket. He won too.
It’s trite to dismiss concerns by saying Altior’s hiccup is nothing in comparison to that. For one thing, neither Harzand or Don’t Forget Me were facing into a round of jumping at Cheltenham. There’s also each individual animal’s toughness to factor in.
Altior is unbeaten in his last dozen starts. His class is undoubted. If there’s still a niggling hangover from his injury scare this could wind up a test of his courage. It’s not as if this was going to be a cakewalk for the favourite anyway.
For one thing, these will be the most testing conditions he’s run on. Altior’s comeback run at Newbury last month was on soft, but there’s a chance this will be the sort of gluey surface that puts much more of a premium on grit than on class.
Altior holds an edge over Willie Mullins’s number two, Min, from the 2016 Supreme, but it’s an edge that one mistake can wipe out. And then there’s Mullins’s number one, presenting punters with perhaps an even greater imponderable than the favourite’s foot.
Ordinarily the prospect of Douvan taking on an outstanding horse like Altior after not having run in a year would be enough to dissuade people from backing him.
That last run was in this race when Douvan started 2-9 and wound up beaten for the first time since joining Mullins. A pelvic problem was diagnosed afterwards and since then Douvan has been intermittently lame, ruled out for the season, then ruled back in. It’s hardly an encouraging profile.
But this is the horse Mullins believes to be the best he’s ever trained. This is the horse that a year ago looked to have every option open to him, from Champion Chase to ultimately perhaps even the Gold Cup. He’s the horse that previously never came close to being stretched. We’re talking anything but ordinary.
Ruby Walsh’s decision to pick him over Min will only encourage the hope that Douvan can seal a perfect comeback. And if any horse can pull it off it’s probably the best Mullins has ever had through his hands.
It’s a huge ask, however, probably bigger than asking Altior to emerge 48 hours after a sore foot and win at the festival for a third year in a row.