Dual Queen Mother Champion Chase hero and four-time Cheltenham Festival winner Altior features among initial entries for the Ryanair Chase, as well as a bid to regain his two-mile crown.
For many years, trainer Nicky Henderson resisted the temptation to try his stable star over further. Yet Altior now has the option of going back up in trip for the Ryanair over an extended two-and-a-half miles the day after the Champion Chase at the 2021 Cheltenham Festival.
He built up a fearsome and unbeatable reputation as a hurdler and over fences, sweeping all-comers aside until an infamous match with Cyrname in the 1965 Chase at Ascot in November 2019. That is the only time in Altior’s stellar career to date that the beloved Patricia Pugh owned gelding has raced beyond two-and-a-quarter miles and he was beaten.
Hindsight being a wonderful thing, Henderson was at great pains afterwards to point out it was a mistake to bow to public and media pressure to see one of his best horses try something new. Altior won’t run in this year’s Clarence House Chase at Ascot despite winning it before in 2019 on 23 January, but will wait instead for another race.
The tried and test route Henderson has used with him down the years if the Grade 2 Game Spirit Chase in February. Altior has won each of the last three renewals of that, but the stable may also have Arkle Challenge Trophy favourite and top novice chaser Shishkin pencilled in for Newbury.
What seems to have prompted this entry in the Ryanair is the way that he finished off his race at Kempton Park in the Desert Orchid Chase. Altior couldn’t reach shock winner Nube Negra, but did stay on well to make sure of second.
A once invincible horse has now lost two of his last three starts, and missed the 2020 Cheltenham Festival with a last-minute setback. Henderson made five other Ryanair Chase entries besides Altior, but three of those are in the same ownership.
It is highly unlikely that all of Simon Munir and Isaac Souede’s horses – Caribean Boy, Janika and Top Notch – will take up their engagements. Mister Fisher, the winner of the Peterborough Chase when it was rescheduled at Cheltenham in December, could be a potential runner in the race, however.
The Seven Barrows trainer may just be teasing bookmakers and punters with Altior’s inclusion, but it has given those giving Cheltenham Festival day 3 betting tips and predictions for St Patrick’s Thursday pause for thought. If he lacks the speed of old, then it could make sense to try a longer trip again.
Any thoughts that the Ryanair Chase will be an easier alternative are wide of the mark. Altior, now aged 11, is the joint eldest entry and now horse older than 10 has ever tasted victory in this particular race. He has always had the beating of last year’s winner Min, however, but it could easily turn out to be one of the hottest contests at the 2021 Cheltenham Festival.