Altior - The Cheltenham Festival Banker Nobody Wants to Take on
"Altior (left) beats Special Tiara (center) and Diego Du Charmil (right) at Sandown" (CC BY-SA 2.0) by Carine06
Going into the 2019 Cheltenham Festival, Altior has never lost a race over hurdles or fences. As a result of that, however, he is yet to be returned at odds against in a chase with a best even-money starting price for the 2018 Queen Mother Champion Chase, largely owing to a last-minute lameness scare.
Competition is running scared from the Nicky Henderson trained nine-year-old son of High Chaparral and his formidable reputation has a swift turn of foot to match. Field sizes against Altior have dwindled over fences. He has never faced more than eight rivals in a chase and yet is one of jumps horse racing's premier attractions.
Henderson has had two-mile kingpins before over both obstacles. Buveur D'Air - Altior's contemporary at Seven Barrows - is running in an era when there is a real lack of top-class hurdlers in the UK and the challenge from both sides of the Irish Sea seemingly comes not from the vaunted Samcro or other geldings, but mares in Laurina and Kempton conqueror Verdana Blue.
See You Then was another multiple Champion Hurdle winner hailing from the yard, who landed three on the bounce in the mid-1980s. A more fitting comparison with Altior is that of Sprinter Sacre - the last horse to win the Champion Chase twice.
He is yet to reach the rating heights that Henderson's popular runner enjoyed in a prolific 2012-13 campaign. The question remains will Altior be regarded as good as Sprinter Sacre if few horses are prepared to line up against him?
After landing the Clarence House Chase at Ascot for the first time in his stellar career, bookmakers left Altior unchanged as a red-hot odds-on favourite to retain his Champion Chase crown. As a three-time Cheltenham Festival winner over approximately two miles, progressing from Supreme Novices' Hurdle hero to an impressive Arkle Challenge Trophy victor before last year's ready success, it's easy to see why.
Altior is exactly the stuff that free bet offers with the bookies are made of. A superstar of his sport, who leaves those who dare to oppose him toiling in his wake as he cruises effortlessly clear.
Such is his dominance that he could afford to jump out to his left at right-handed track Ascot and still win with aplomb. Any repeat of that tendency will hardly hurt his Cheltenham chances come mid-March as he won't forfeit any ground.
British and Irish sportsbooks are best odds of 9/1 bar Altior for the Champion Chase in the shape of Footpad. The strong profile that Willie Mullins trained Irish raider built up as a novice last season has been somewhat shattered by disappointing displays in open company, yet the young pretender could easily get his campaign back on track with a win in the eponymous race of the Dublin Racing Festival.
Another Mullins mount, Min, is next in the market and ran out an impressive winner of the John Durkan over two-and-a-half miles at Punchestown. That Grade 1 race is usually run on tough going and so a stayer often wins it, but no this time.
In light of his victory there, Min could be one of many to avoid meeting Altior - who has twice beaten him seven lengths at the Cheltenham Festival - and go for the middle distance Ryanair Chase this year instead. Stepping their horses up, so they swerve this awesome animal is what many owners and trainers are said to be plotting.
Colin Tizzard, who won the Ryanair with now-retired stable flagbearer Cue Card in 2013, is looking at doing exactly that for the recently returned Fox Norton. That nine-year-old has a fine record around Cheltenham and was just denied by a head in the 2017 Champion Chase, but the plan is to only tackle Altior again if as expected few take him on after going doing by seven lengths at Ascot.
The upshot of that is the Ryanair Chase is likely to be a hotter race, which may add some much needed extra prestige to this relatively recently inaugurated event. Where that leaves the Champion Chase, however, remains to be seen.
Altior seems to have a date with destiny and he looks a banker bet to win a new record 13th consecutive race over fences at the Cheltenham Festival. It's just a shame the competition might not be up to much with the best horses aimed at other targets.