There is no such thing as a guarantee in racing – but Altior proved again he is as close as it gets when he took his unbeaten sequence over jumps to 18 in the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase.
The records will show another Grade One next to his name after a successful defence of the title Altior claimed 12 months ago, yet this was a victory which tested the nerves of trainer Nicky Henderson and owner Patricia Pugh.
Tracking early pace-setter Saint Calvados for much of the race, the usually foot-perfect nine-year-old trailed his hind legs in the water jump but was barely knocked out of stride by an error which would have ended the chances of many.
Nico de Boinville duly took the lead on the home turn and appeared to have matters in control until, briefly, Sceau Royal threatened to cause one of the biggest upsets in Festival history as he headed the 4-11 favourite over the last.
There are few horses as brave as Altior, though – and he eventually forged on up the run-in to hold the late challenge of Politologue by a length and three-quarters, with the same distance back to Sceau Royal in third.
A relieved Henderson said: “It is nice when it is over. It is like hitting your head against a brick wall – the only nice part is when it stops.
“It does get to you, because you are under the scrutiny – you are lucky to have them, but they do come with health warnings.”
After Altior’s win had taken him level with great staying hurdler Big Buck’s for the longest unbeaten run over jumps, Henderson added: “You thought ‘hells bells, we’ve got trouble here’ – but he then just picked up. He knew what he had to do.
“We knew there was not much pace, and Nico was worried Saint Calvados wasn’t going to make it.
“I didn’t see what he did at the water, but his jumping (otherwise) was great. Nico said more than anything, he hated the (soft) ground.”
Having watched his retired two-time winner of the race Sprinter Sacre parade in front of those gathered around the winner’s enclosure before racing, Henderson reflected on his former stable star – while his latest Festival hero was being accorded an appropriate Cheltenham reception.
“When you look at the crowd here now, you just think back to the Sprinter Sacre days,” he said.
“It was lovely he was here this morning, and they gave him a great welcome. How lucky are we as we retire him, then find another? You can’t believe it is possible, and it makes it all worthwhile.
“They have both done their bits for us and racing – it does take you back to those days, people taking themselves to horses, and they then genuinely become ‘public’.”
Calls are sure to be made for Altior to be stepped up to three miles, and Henderson will give serious thought to next season’s King George VI Chase – a race for which Betway make him a 4-1 shot.
Henderson added: “What we do next, I don’t know. Last year he wasn’t ready to come back at Aintree and we waited for Sandown – and that is what we will probably do.
“We will sit down in the summer and I think about it. We will seriously think about the King George next season.”
Having partnered Altior in each of his previous Festival victories – in the Supreme, Arkle and this race 12 months ago – De Boinville heaped more praise on the equine star.
“I just found we were coming unstuck in that ground slightly, and we had a slight mis-communication at the water jump,” he said.
“We definitely went half a length down after the last, but he just seems to find this extra gear. I don’t know where it comes from – he is just a phenomenal athlete.
“I was watching the crowd that came in to see him – and the cheer that he just got, I think we are getting to the level of Sprinter Sacre.”
Paul Nicholls hailed a near career-best performance from his runner-up, a dual Grade One winner, and earmarked a trip to Aintree next.
He said: “I thought going to the last we were going to give him a real race – and we did make him go. It was probably a career-best run from Politologue.
“We’ll either go back to Aintree for the Melling Chase again or the two-miler on the last day of the season at Sandown (Celebration Chase), depending on how well he is.”
Festival veteran God’s Own was pulled up abruptly between the last two fences, but was reported afterwards to be none the worse.