Nicky Henderson dismisses Altior retirement talk after shock defeat

Same date, same race, same trainer: the parallels with Sprinter Sacre’s shock defeat in the Desert Orchid Chase seven years ago were hard to ignore after Altior could finish only second behind the surprise 20-1 winner Nube Negra on his first start for 10 months here on Sunday.

One difference, though, is that Sprinter Sacre’s problem was swiftly diagnosed as a fibrillating heart – serious, but treatable. The concern after Altior’s defeat, his second in 22 starts over jumps, is that time is catching up with him, which no amount of treatment can cure.

Altior was an uneasy even-money favourite for a race he won at odds of 1-8 just two years ago, amid a winning sequence at the start of his jumping career which eventually stretched to 19 races.

The first hint of vulnerability came early, as Nico de Boinville was forced to nudge him along to track the pace, and though he was staying on again at the finish, Nube Negra had cruised into the lead between the last two fences and Altior never threatened to lay a glove on a horse officially rated 20lb his inferior.

Nicky Henderson, Altior’s trainer, had no immediate explanation for his stable star’s defeat. “He was a bit rusty, yes, but it’s not as if he blew the house down afterwards so I’m not going to blame it on that,” Henderson said. “He’s been all but a year off the racecourse and one has to mention this ghastly thing about the ground again. It doesn’t help him but to be fair Nico [de Boinville, his jockey] said he was never really taking him where he wanted to be and he shouldn’t be getting beaten by that level [of opponent].

“It was hard work but I take little plusses out of it. He did actually finish, he was going probably better at the end and at least he was running on, he didn’t stop. He just always seemed to be in top gear.”

It took more than two years for Henderson to nurse Sprinter Sacre back to Grade One-winning form at 10 years of age on a memorable day at Cheltenham in March 2016. Altior, though, turns 11 on Friday and his trainer does not have nearly so much time on his side.

“We will scope him but I don’t think there’s anything wrong there,” Henderson said. “We scoped him two days ago and he was as clean as a whistle. But let’s not write him off yet. Unless he definitely tells us enough is enough, we’ve not discussed it [retirement] and that’s the last thing on my mind that we would retire him. We sat through these sessions with Sprinter, and everyone wanted him retired, yet look what he gave us at the end, it was a day that none of us will ever forget.”

Henderson cast his mind back, too, to the race on testing ground at Ascot last year that cost Altior his unbeaten record over fences, and possibly more besides.

“It’s a little bit like Sprinter when he had his fibrillating heart here, when you get to that point where you sort of frighten a horse,” Henderson said. “It’s a bit like boiling a kettle without any water in it, it’s going to blow up and you can’t do anything about it, that’s the end of the kettle.

“You always have to be fearful that when you’ve gone that low you never know what scar you’ve left on them. It was the same with Sprinter, it took a long time and a lot of building up. We haven’t got a lot of time at the moment, so we’ll have to see. He’s got to run again if he’s going to go to Cheltenham.”

Ladbrokes pushed Altior out to 10-1 (from 6-1) for the Champion Chase in March while Chacun Pour Soi, an impressive winner of the two-mile Grade One at Leopardstown on Sunday, was cut to 5-4 (from 5-2).

Altior was the second big name from the Henderson stable to suffer a defeat at Kempton’s Christmas Festival after Epatante, the Champion Hurdle winner last season, could finish only second at long odds-on in the Christmas Hurdle on Saturday.

There was one very bright light for the yard at the meeting, however, as Shishkin, often seen as Altior’s natural successor in the top two-mile chases, brushed aside his field to win the Grade Two Wayward Lad Novice Chase.

Altior took the same race in 2016 on the way to a short-odds victory in the Arkle Trophy the following March, and Shishkin too is now odds-on for the second race at the Festival meeting at a top price of 5-6.


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