The drumbeats are quickening ahead of the Cheltenham Festival and at this stage there really is no substitute for going racing. Some might have ducked Newbury’s Betfair Hurdle meeting on Saturday because of the bitter wind, which made a hot-water bottle the most prized object on the winner’s rostrum, and because the other two key races on the card were reduced to three and four runners. More fool them. Both produced intriguing contests and vital clues for the Festival.
An earnest statistician once asked a northern trainer what the crucial signs were that told her when one of her horses was ready to win a race. She replied, ‘Just one. A grin on my husband’s face after he comes in from the gallops.’ You had only to take one look at Nicky Henderson’s wide-eyed smile, half relief at surviving the conditions, half sheer joy at the quality of what we had just seen, to know that Altior in the Racing Post Arkle Chase is his banker for this year’s Festival.
We all know how much Nicky adores the iconic Sprinter Sacre, who looked glorious despite the snow as he pranced around the parade ring before racing. Their trainer resists invitations to compare the two but he does acknowledge that Altior ‘is on the same pathway’ and head lad Corky Browne, never one to get carried away after his 75 years of experience, is happy to have them mentioned in the same sentence. Says Nicky: ‘It’s impossible to think you could put one away and pull another rabbit out of the hat because the world does not work that way but we’ve always thought that Altior was very good.’ He had been disappointed when Altior, winner of last year’s Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at the Festival, had been beaten in a bumper by the talented Barters Hill, and significantly he added that although he has in Buveur d’Air and Brain Power two of the most fancied horses in this year’s Champion Hurdle (a prize he has five times taken back to Seven Barrows), ‘If Altior had stayed hurdling he’d be favourite.’
Altior powered away relentlessly from Fox Norton, one of our Twelve to Follow, who was clearly attempting the impossible in trying to give the winner five pounds, putting in some spectacular leaps despite the conditions, and it was good to see that his regular rider, Nico de Boinville, was back in the plate after his broken arm. Altior had won twice in the hands of Noel Fehily during Nico’s absence and there is always a fear at the back of an injured jockey’s mind when others have scored on his mount. Fortunately, loyalty goes both ways at Seven Barrows.
The Betfair Denman Chase also proved to be genuinely informative despite cutting up to just three runners and that race, too, provided an example of the jumping community’s quality of character. Champion Jockey Richard Johnson is teased by his peers for his reluctance to spend money and does not often pass up the chance of getting his hands on more of the folding stuff. But having been declared to ride Native River for Colin Tizzard, Johnson found himself wobbly with the flu. He could have taken a risk. Instead he approached the trainer and said that he was not in a condition to do the horse justice. Dickie Johnson not only passed the horse to Aidan Coleman to ride but also suggested new tactics which helped to ensure success and strengthen the trainer’s hand for the Gold Cup.
We all knew from his victories in the Hennessy Gold Cup and the Welsh Grand National that Native River possesses stamina in abundance. His trainer ran him in the four-miler at the last Cheltenham Festival and in his two big victories he galloped his opponents relentlessly into the ground, went on from four or five fences out and held on to win. At Newbury, advised by Johnson to give Native River more company, Coleman waited until two out before turning up the gas and accelerating clear of the persistent Le Mercurey, revealing a new weapon in his gun room. Native River showed he was the whole deal and his delighted trainer noted, ‘He isn’t just an out-and-out stayer, he has pace as well. We don’t have to go on five out — he has every gear.’ With Cue Card and Thistlecrack in his yard as well, Colin Tizzard has a brilliant hand for the Gold Cup but he is now more than ever reluctant to put them in a pecking order.
Ballyandy confirmed the good form of Nigel Twiston-Davies’s horses by winning the Betfair Hurdle in a duel with Movewiththetimes, but there was another victory to note with the Festival in mind. High Bridge ran well in bumpers when John Ferguson was enjoying himself training jumpers. Passed on to Ben Pauling in the Bloomfields colours, with son Alex Ferguson riding, he won his third novice hurdle, giving weight all round. You could get 20–1 for his Cheltenham prospects afterwards and to my mind he is true value each way.