Mike Cattermole: Not going Native
Our columnist Mike Cattermole can't wait to see Altior v Douvan and questions exactly what Native River achieved at Newbury.
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ALTIOR v DOUVAN CAN'T HAPPEN SOON ENOUGH
Altior was sensationally good - again - at Newbury on Saturday and what a jump at the last - simply breathtaking. Incredibly, Nicky Henderson has found an instant replacement for his "horse of a lifetime", Sprinter Sacre.
This sort of thing just doesn't happen. Just when it had all finally caught up with the legendary Sprinter, Altior makes the seamless transition to fences and is officially now in front (just) of his former stablemate at the corresponding time in their chasing careers. How exciting is that?
What there is no doubt about is that Altior was the better hurdler. He was unbeaten in five and won the Supreme Novices' Hurdle, whereas Sprinter won two from four and was only third in the Supreme.
Saturday's win at Newbury in the Game Spirit was Altior's fourth chase start but Sprinter won the same race on just his third outing and, like Altior, he too never came off the bridle to beat stablemate French Opera who was rated 162 at the time and conceded 5lb.
Fox Norton, who was also conceding the same weight, couldn't live with Altior on Saturday, but was rated 167 going into the race. So Altior could have got a rating of around 175, but the official assessor has arguably been a touch conservative by raising him to a mere 170 going into the Arkle in four weeks. Sprinter, at the corresponding time, was on 169.
Of course, Sprinter made a giant leap forward in the spring of his first senior season when his demolition of former champ Sizing Europe at Cheltenham and comfortable defeat of Cue Card at Aintree saw his rating soar to the giddy heights of 188. So Altior has a bit to do yet.
However, the brilliant Douvan is currently on 174 so Altior is just about at his level already. Fascinatingly, Fox Norton was beaten a comfortable 11 lengths at levels by Douvan in the Arkle last March.
Yet earlier this week, one bookmaker offered 7/4 Altior, 2/5 Douvan should they meet before the end of 2018. I know what price I would take and it doesn't involve Douvan!
So, when exactly could this latest clash of superstars happen, though? Sadly, it seems unlikely that it will be in this year's Champion Chase with the Henderson team confirming that they are looking no further than the Arkle.
Everybody is talking about Douvan tackling the Gold Cup one day but I am not so sure he will. Stepping up in trip, though, is a given and I suspect the same will be true of Altior in the not too distant future.
However, it doesn't take a genius to work out that Altior's first target next season will probably be the Tingle Creek Chase and that has to surely figure on Douvan's agenda too, even if they send him over a bit further later on. It might happen then. Next year's Queen Mother Champion Chase is another possible or it might be the Melling Chase at Aintree the following month.
That's a long way into the future in racing terms but by then, both sets of connections will probably be considering three miles, so the 2018 King George comes into view where Thistlecrack (plus other newer staying stars) could lie in wait.
All right, that's probably getting a little ahead of myself but the more you think about it, the more it looks that Douvan/Altior will happen more than once - so long as they both stay sound. As Messrs Mullins, Ricci and Henderson know only too well, that's a big "if", so here's wishing and hoping.
NATIVE RIVER GOLD CUP PRICE CUT UNJUSTIFIED
Native River is a lovely staying chaser who has "Gold Cup" stamped all over him but why were some bookmakers rushing for cover and slashing his price for Cheltenham after his latest win at Newbury on Saturday?
Taking on just two opponents in the Denman Chase and with Bristol De Mai clearly running flat, he was left with only Le Mercurey to deal with. Le Mercurey is a nice chaser, make no mistake, but he only received 1lb from Native River on Saturday when he would have been getting 17lb off the Colin Tizzard-trained star in a handicap.
So a three-and-a-quarter-length defeat of Le Mercurey was the least that could be expected from the Hennessy and Welsh National hero who merely confirmed his well-being and his admirable tendency to finish his races off strongly.
Over at Leopardstown on Sunday, Sizing John and Empire Of Dirt ran just as pleasing Gold Cup trials as they fought out the finish to the Irish Gold Cup with Don Poli held in third.
Sizing John has not looked back since leaving his nemesis Douvan and the 2m division behind and surely he has earned a crack at the big one after this.
However, I do wonder if things may have been different had Empire Of Dirt kicked on earlier on Sunday and he was also a little short of room on the inside there in the closing stages so he deserves credit for going so close.
Empire is a general 16/1 chance for the race but there is a bit of 20/1 around and that is not bad value in a race that is looking more and more open after Thistlecrack's recent reverse.
And welcome back More Than That - the forgotten superstar - who held every chance when falling at the last. Up until then he had travelled and jumped with impressive fluency. This was much more like what we had hoped from the horse that seemed to have the world at his feet two or three seasons ago.
GRAND NATIONAL WEIGHTS AND MEASURES
More Of That was in fact one of those that caught the eye after the weights for the Randox Health Grand National were revealed at the V&A in London on Tuesday night. (No, I wasn't invited - again - and I am not bitter, honestly).
None of us could believe that there was a horse around who could give Annie Power 7lb and a beating but that's what More Of That did in the World Hurdle of 2014. And just from looking at this splendid beast, the old and well worn cliché of "anything he does over hurdles is a bonus" seemed particularly apt in this case.
But as we know he has had problems since, including breaking blood vessels. However, if he still has it in him, his mark of 157 in the National where he is set to carry 11-1 is intriguing given that he was 169 at his hurdling peak.
Trouble is, nobody knows what is going to turn up from the JP McManus team and More Of That probably deserves a crack at the Gold Cup first.
Carlingford Lough seems to the team's number one at present and he has been crying out for a massive stamina test for quite some time now. He must be considered seriously. His appetite for it looked unabated, judged on Sunday's fourth in his hat-trick bid at Leopardstown.
Road To Riches has never looked like an out-and-out stayer to me but he is well treated although he looks to be regressing. Gigginstown have so many options, as indeed does Gordon Elliott who has a staggeringly strong team.
Ucello Conti, sixth last year and fourth in the Becher Chase, must be high up on his list and rightly so. He represents Messrs Munir and Souede and so will benefit from the assistance of Daryl Jacob who rides the course so well. He is already being backed, however, after an excellent second in the Thyestes Chase at Gowran Park.
Sausalito Sunrise can be smart on his day and thrashed Vieux Lion Rouge at Ascot last February but his jumping is surely not good enough for Aintree.
Interestingly, Philip Hobbs' chaser was on the receiving end of a thumping by O'Faolains Boy by 15l at levels at Newbury just over a year ago and Rebecca Curtis's chaser now gets 7lb.
O'Faolains Boy is a high-class chaser on his day who beat Smad Place in the RSA Chase at Cheltenham in 2014. Sure, that's a long time ago and although he has shown some good form since, he has also had his problems and has not been out since being well beaten in the Gold Cup last March.
However, my understanding is that he has been freshened up by some hunting and there is little doubt that he looks well treated off 10-6 (equating to a mark of 148). He is 40/1 with Sky Bet.
I note that the Leeds-based firm are only 22/1 about Vicente and he has definitely been given a chance by the assessor. Although last year's Scottish National hero stays forever, he does need to tidy up his jumping, though, and he is also 50th on the list, so who knows if he will get into the race?
So many imponderables but my three at the moment are Ucello Conti, O'Faolains Boy and Carlingford Lough.
RAMS ARE SCORING AGAIN, BUT…
There was a time when they couldn't get the ball in the net, but six goals in their last two matches seems to have proven that Derby have got over that problem.
Trouble is, they have let in seven! Losing 4-3 to Cardiff on Tuesday night probably means their chances of reaching the play-offs are gone. Yes, depressingly, we are only in mid February but I fear the season is over.