Nicky Henderson is “very, very happy” with Altior and the 11 year old will attempt to become just the second horse to win the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase three times on Wednesday 17th March, day two of The Festival supporting WellChild.
A four-time Festival winner, having also taken the 2016 Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle and 2017 Sporting Life Arkle, Altior missed Cheltenham in 2020 with lameness and was beaten into second on his only start this season in the Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton Park.
Now he has the opportunity to write himself into the history books by becoming only the third horse - after Quevega (six) and Golden Miller (five) - to win five Festival races or more.
Henderson said: “Altior could not be better and I’m very, very happy. His whole demeanour is in a better place than he has been this year.
“It hasn’t been easy and having looked invincible, luck hasn’t gone his way.
“He raced very lazily and lacked his usual and sharpness and accuracy at Kempton over Christmas. It was a pity Newbury had to go back a week and took us off our step a little bit. He takes his races quite hard and the feeling was that having closed it down to three weeks and two days, we were not going to run him in the Game Spirit.
“As it turned out, the ground was very good at Newbury and we probably could have done but it enabled to switch Champ and although it was quite an odd thing to do I am pleased it went that way.
“Altior went off with Mister Fisher and had a good gallop, jumping fences. They were both in good form and it all went very well. I am very happy with where Altior is. He will have one more bit of work here and is he is fit and seems very well. Chacun Pour Soi and plenty of others will be there but he is still there and will be sharper this time. There will be a battle and I am looking forward to it.
“One has to remember he is 11 now and is on 11 year old legs. He has done very little wrong. One or two things have conspired against and I have to go back to the race at Ascot last over 2m 5f on heavy ground against Cyrname.
“Actually I would have a pound that even Paul (Nicholls) is slightly regretting it too as I think it bottomed both horses – they have both struggled to get back from that race. I would have given all the tea in China not to have run that day but I couldn’t have taken him out as everybody had been waiting for this clash but we stupidly went for it as our first run of the season. It did neither of them any good and both horses were struggling after.
“But I am not struggling with Altior at the moment – he is good. It was a miracle when Sprinter Sacre came back and I don’t think you can hope for two miracles! If Altior won it would be very special. He has been a fantastic horse to have had.”
When asked if there was a chance of Altior wearing any headgear next month, Henderson replied: “I think it is something to be considered. It is something we have discussed. We have eliminated the Ryanair Chase as an option so we might look at something to try and sharpen him up over two miles.”
The yard’s other big hope on the opening day of the Festival is Shishkin, who puts his unbeaten record over fences on the line in the Sporting Life Arkle Challenge Trophy.
Last year’s Supreme Novices’ Hurdle hero is a hot favourite to double his Festival tally, but Henderson acknowledges his task is far from straightforward, with Irish Arkle winner Energumene rated a potent threat.
He said: “It’s amazing how this race has changed. Three or four weeks ago Shishkin was odds-on and everyone was saying it would be boring, but all of a sudden Willie (Mullins) has come along with his two-mile novice (Energumene) and I think Allmankind was impressive again at Warwick.
“There’s a real fight on now and I think people are seeing it as one of the big headline clashes of the week. He’s got a couple of bits of work to do and will have another school.
“Everything is fairly well on course at the moment.”
When going through some of his other Festival contenders, Henderson appeared particularly sweet on the chances of the aforementioned Mister Fisher in the Ryanair Chase, adding: “I’d like to think he’s got a very good shout.
“He went away with Altior earlier this week and his jumping has been very good.
“He won the Peterborough Chase, which was moved from Huntingdon to Cheltenham, and put up a first-class performance.
“He would very much like good ground. If he gets some decent ground, I think he’ll be very competitive.”