Altior and Native River were the headline acts at Newbury on Saturday and both delivered, albeit with varying degrees of fluency. The latter’s performance in winning his third Denman Chase was generally well-received, auguring well for a bold showing in what looks a wide-open Gold Cup, whereas the reaction to Altior’s Game Spirit success wasn’t all positive, with many pointing to the fact that he was rather workmanlike in victory as a cause for concern.
However, to focus on that aspect of his performance could prove misguided. It’s fair to say that others were travelling better on the approach to the last, but we’ve seen that plenty of times before with Altior and we’ve also seen how much he finds under pressure, a feature of the run that saw him record 19 successive runs over obstacles between October 2015 and April 2019.
The way he stormed clear on the run-in on Saturday was characteristic of him at his very best, and he has such a great record at the Cheltenham Festival that he looks a thoroughly deserving favourite in the defence of his Champion Chase crown, even with young pretenders such as Defi du Seuil and Chacun Pour Soi snapping at his heels in what is shaping up to be the race of the meeting.
Novice talent runs deep at Seven Barrows
Altior’s trainer Nicky Henderson has a strong team of novice hurdlers to go to war with at Cheltenham, headed by Chantry House and Shishkin, both of whom put the finishing touches to their Festival preparations with impressive successes in recent days.
Chantry House produced a striking performance at Newbury to maintain his unbeaten record under Rules in dominant fashion, looking every inch a smart novice in the making. He’s entered in both the Supreme and the Ballymore at the Festival, with the shorter race appealing as the most suitable target at this stage, such was the speed he demonstrated at the weekend.
The only question is whether Henderson will want to split his aces after Shishkin looked similarly fleet of foot when recording a smooth victory in listed company at Huntingdon on Thursday, ultimately winning by 11 lengths with plenty still left in the locker. His trainer seemed to confirm that the Supreme was his likely target in the aftermath, and the market currently favours him for that race, with Shishkin at 11/4 and Chantry House at 15/2.
In any case, the pair of them remain most exciting prospects, and, while a fair way behind the top Irish novices in bare form terms, it’s highly unlikely that we’ve seen anything like the best of them yet.
Cards still to be played in Champion Hurdle conundrum
Away from the action on the racecourse, Willie Mullins was dealt a blow last week when it was announced that Klassical Dream and Saldier had both been ruled out of the Champion Hurdle.
The feature event on the opening day of the Festival continues to have an extremely open look to it, and, with most of the major trials having been run already, it would appear that the most significant developments in this division are behind us.
Of course, that could all change if the Mullins-trained Benie des Dieux is rerouted here after the injuries to her stablemates – she currently heads Paddy Power’s NRNB market at 5/2 – while there must also be a growing temptation for Gordon Elliott to pitch leading novice Envoi Allen in at the deep end, so weak has this race become, not to mention the strength in depth in the novice division.
For context, Envoi Allen (154P) is already rated similarly to the likes of Pentland Hills (156p) and Sharjah (152), while the large ‘P’ attached to his rating denotes that he is open to significant improvement. He would certainly be a big player if getting the go-ahead, and the 5/1 NRNB currently on offer makes plenty of appeal.
*All odds correct at time of publication