Who owns Altior? I ask because of the brouhaha over Nicky Henderson’s late withdrawal of his stable star, winner of a record-breaking 19 consecutive races over jumps, from last Saturday’s Betfair Tingle Creek Chase. Official description of the chase course going was ‘soft, good to soft in places’. Nicky’s description was ‘a bottomless glue pit’ and he withdrew Altior despite the gelding’s proven ability to cope with normally soft ground.
The racing public, trade press and bookmakers had all been keenly anticipating Altior’s renewed clash with Politologue, the Paul Nicholls-trained grey who won the Champion Chase at the Cheltenham Festival in March following Altior’s late withdrawal from that race with a bone splint. The disappointment was massive. The public ‘adopts’ superstar horses, particularly superstars such as Altior whose electric jumping is breathtaking and whose habit of seemingly having lost his chance late on only to engage a new gear and leave his rivals gasping in his wake makes him especially watchable for those without heart conditions. But that emotional stake in him doesn’t convey a right to dictate his programme. Altior is owned by Patricia Pugh, and Nicky Henderson is obliged to consult nobody other than Mrs Pugh about when and where he runs.
There was a special factor: the battering sound issuing from Seven Barrows last winter was not a dodgy boiler or a bit of rebuilding but the sound of N. Henderson Esq banging his head against a wall in frustration at having let Altior open his 2019-20 season by running for the first time over further than two miles on soft ground at Ascot against the top-class and fitter Cyrname. It was a decision that lost his champion his unbeaten record and took the stuffing out of Altior for two months. Once bitten, twice shy. But when Nicky went on to say that the only race that mattered to Altior this season was the two-mile Champion Chase at the Cheltenham Festival, the Tingle Creek sponsor Betfair was understandably miffed, saying that such comments were dismissive of the historic contest that the Tingle Creek represents.
I love the Cheltenham Festival but it does distort jump racing’s perspective. We can debate for ever whether racing is a sport or a business (roughly it’s a sport when we are enjoying ourselves, and a business employing 200,000 when we are looking for help from the government) and Nicky was talking from a sportsman’s perspective. But we need generous sponsors to be kept happy too.
In the event, the Tingle Creek was not lacking in spectacle, with jockey Harry Skelton — who learned his trade as a member of the Paul Nicholls team at Ditcheat and who was aboard Politologue because of the Skelton family’s association with owner John Hales — yelling his delight after he had partnered Politologue to an exhilarating victory, attacking every fence with zest. It was, amazingly, the 11th Paul Nicholls-trained victory in the race. Harry Skelton had won the previous race, the Henry VIII Novices’ Chase, the same exuberant way on the previously headstrong Allmankind, taking a Grade One for his brother Dan as well as his Ditcheat mentor. Down to just eight winners in the 2012-13 season, he is now the complete jockey.
Most seasons offer a cluster of racing books to enliven any lockdown. This year I have encountered only one: Enable: Queen of the Turf (Racing Post, £19.99). Beautifully illustrated and neatly compiled by Andrew Pennington, it takes the reader race by race through the career of the finest mare most of us are ever likely to see, the winner of 11 Group Ones including two Classics, a Breeders’ Cup Turf, two Prix de l’Arc de Triomphes and three King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes. It is the descriptions and comments on the second of those King Georges to which I will return again and again as Enable and Crystal Ocean eyeballed one another all the way down the Ascot straight. As her trainer John Gosden put it: ‘Crystal Ocean said to her: “I’m going to win this”, and she said back: “No, I am.” She really showed mental toughness and so did he.’ I have never ever seen Frankie Dettori so emotionally and physically drained after a race.
The other racing volume not to be missed is Milo Corbett’s Bloodstock Notebook: What the bloodstock business reads in bed, available online at £25 with all proceeds going to the Injured Jockeys Fund. The hefty volume’s meaty full-length studies include an intriguing portrait of David Redvers, the man behind Qatar Racing’s success, the story of silver collector Nelson Bunker Hunt’s rise and fall, a portrait of sultry French jockey Mickaëlle Michel and a Rolf Johnson interview with Richard Hannon senior, which adds further to the treasure trove of royal racing anecdotage. A horse gets loose on the gallops and the Hannon Land Rover, with Her Majesty on board, screams scarily off-piste in pursuit until the animal is cornered. At that point Hannon declares: ‘It’s okay, Ma’am. I was worried it was one of mine. He’s not. He’s one of yours.’ Unmissable.