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.