Altior overcomes ground and injury scare to claim Champion Chase
Douvan falls at fourth last but Mullins says encouraging run was ‘a huge positive’
Altior ridden by Nico de Boinville on his way to winning the Champion Chase ahead of Paul Townend and Min at Cheltenham. Photograph: Michael Steele/Getty Images
Nicky Henderson is feeling the heat from Willie Mullins in regard to his status as the Cheltenham festival’s most successful ever trainer but history awaits him in Friday’s Gold Cup after Altior’s dramatic Champion Chase victory on Wednesday.
The evens favourite overcame a foot injury scare just 48 hours previously to ultimately beat Mullins’s hope Min by seven lengths despite appearing to labour in the conditions for much of the race.
Quite what would have happened if the other big Mullins hope, Douvan, had not fallen at the fourth last fence is the great imponderable of the outcome. Patrick Mullins took over from the sidelined Ruby Walsh and said Douvan was “cantering” when he tipped up.
That Min was hampered by his stable companion might lead Mullins to believe there is some kind of hex over him winning the two-mile championship. What we know for certain though is its newest winner is a true champion.
Possessed of abundant class, Altior showed he also has the heart of a champion. He never travelled with his customary fluency, looked to detest ground that jockeys almost unanimously described as dead, and yet when it counted in the straight he came to life.
Jockey Nico de Boinville joined Min at the second last and the pair were level too at the last. Min came clear of God’s Own in third but ultimately Altior won with the sort of authority once associated with his former stable companion Sprinter Sacre.
That peerless two-miler was unparalleled in 2013 and drowned the house in sentiment with a 2016 repeat here. Henderson loved him more than anyone. But even he was moved to say that Altior is approaching the same sort of aura.
Despite Altior giving him a 60th festival success, the Englishman can see Mullins in his festival wing-mirrors. But after Altior and Buveur D’Air’s Champion Hurdle victory on Tuesday he has an unprecedented Triple Crown of Cheltenham’s greatest prizes in his sights with Might Bite favourite for the Gold Cup.
“Might Bite’s in great shape. He’s got to stay – and he’s got to stay straight!” joked Henderson in reference to Might Bite’s history of waywardness up the Cheltenham hill.
If he needs a model of how to tackle the famous incline with fortitude while keeping gun-barrel straight then Altior will do just fine. It was a third successive festival victory for a flat-bred animal who hardly has the stamp of a chasing stalwart such as Sprinter Sacre.
De Boinville is perfectly placed to compare the pair but he was in awe of the resilience his latest partner showed.
“He’s exceptional, the best of the best. That was just sensational,” the English jockey said. “I was in serious trouble the whole way round. It’s not his ground at all. His jumping kept him in the race and he’s some horse to get me out of trouble. He’s a freak.”
Similar language was being employed for Douvan just over a year ago and coming to the fourth last fence it looked like getting pressed into service again.
For a horse without a run in 12 months, and coming off an interrupted preparation, Douvan travelled and jumped like a dream up to the fourth last.
“He guessed at it. But up to then he looked like the Douvan of old. He was cantering. I think he’s done enough to show he was back to himself. I thought it was a huge positive from my point of view. Maybe there will be Punchestown for him,” Mullins said.
Five year ago Sprinter Sacre memorably took in Punchestown too. If Altior and Douvan take each other on again next month it will be a race to savour.