The agony, the ecstasy, those familiar extremes bookending the Cheltenham experience, found dramatic expression once again in the Champion Chase, the remarkable Altior augmenting his growing legend at the expense of Douvan, for whom so much was once promised.
The triumph of the Seven Barrows bullet has brought an unprecedented Cheltenham treble of Champion Hurdle, Champion Chase and Gold Cup into view for no one else but Nicky Henderson, whose father helped create the modern Cheltenham, setting out the canvas for his son to embroider with epic memories.
This was another, bringing up the same hat-trick of Supreme Novices Hurdle, the Arkle Chase and now Champions Chase, notched by Henderson’s most recent dream maker Sprinter Sacre. If that were not enough to send tributes flying through the air, picture the scenes tomorrow should Might Bite claim the Gold Cup giving Henderson the big three in the same year for the first time.
The wonder horse is always there in the imagination waiting to be claimed by trainers ever alert to a first sighting of a special one. Unbeaten before pulling up lame in this race last year, Douvan certainly gained our attention with 14 successive victories, including the Supreme Novices Hurdle in 2015 and the Arkle Chase the following year.
No one knew for sure how his return might unfold since he has not run since. Until the horse cracks the ability to communicate via speech we are left to interpret signals, the business of gurus, whisperers and trainers like Willie Mullins and Henderson. For entirely different reasons both had hearts in mouth as Douvan was jumping like a machine and leading with ease before catching the top of a fence just four from home.
A collective groan echoed around the grandstands reflecting the loss of a Hollywood finish as well as potential winnings. The portents were not great when Cheltenham poster boy Ruby Walsh, who was booked to ride Douvan, fell in the second race of the day and was taken to hospital after aggravating the leg break that kept him out since the middle of November.
Mercifully, Douvan’s demise was not as profound. He might even go again this season and all being well, return to the festival to script a more fitting end. “I thought he had done enough to show he was back to himself,” Mullins said. “He was absolutely cantering, jumping great. He just over-jumped that fence and caught the top of it. But a huge positive from my point of view looking at the way he ran.”
Altior still had plenty to do and was not the favourite as he chased down Douvan’s stablemate Min in the approach to the last. But once his feet touched the ground Altior fell into Ferrari mode and made light of the heavy ground, rendering Min an also-ran and he wasn’t exactly going backwards. Altior is one of only five horses to win consecutively three different races at the festival and earned the label of “freak” from jockey Nico de Boinville. “His jumping kept him in the race. He is exceptional, the best of the best. What a superstar he is and boy am I lucky to ride him. I know that he has those gears at the end of a race. He’s a freak.”
That’s some testimony from the jockey who rode Sprinter Sacre to his arresting Champion Chase of 2016 after recovering from heart problems. Altior had his own scare on Monday when he went temporarily lame with puss in his near-fore foot. The problem cleared quickly and he was sent to the tape in good health.
“He and Sprinter are very different horses,”added De Boinville. “Sprinter always did his best work between three and two out, whereas Altior does it at the end. With his turn of foot he’s done it like a hot knife through butter.”
As good as Altior is, he has some way to go to shove Sprinter aside in the heart of Henderson. “He is very good. I always said they were very big shoes that had to get filled but he is getting close but we will never forget Sprinter, will we? I think he tugged at heart strings more than this fellow is likely to do. If he can come back in a year’s time and win then maybe we are doing it (a Sprinter) again. We will never forget Sprinter but for today we say thanks Altior.”