Happy to pick up gauntlet laid down by Altior

Race winner Forest Bihan (left) ridden by jockey Aidan Coleman.
Race winner Forest Bihan (left) ridden by jockey Aidan Coleman.
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BOTH Brian Ellison and Malcolm Jefferson accept that Altior – the potential superstar steeplechaser already being hailed as the next Sprinter Sacre – will be virtually impossible to beat in next week’s Arkle Trophy at the Cheltenham Festival.

After all, the Nicky Henderson-trained Altior has won all four starts over fences in imperious style, including the Grade One Henry VIII Novices Chase at Sandown. The form is in the book and his rider, Nico de Boinville, partnered Sprinter Sacre to Champion Chase glory last year.

Yet both trainers – friends and rivals in Malton’s resurgent racing community – have not shied away from entering Forest Bihan and Cloudy Dreams, respectively, in this prestigious and historic two-mile championship race for novice chasers.

For Ellison, it would represent a first – and long-overdue – Festival winner.

For Jefferson, it would be the culmination of his best season since 2012 when Cape Tribulation and Attaglance both won at Cheltenham before replicating their successes at Aintree.

“If I don’t win, I hope he (Jefferson) does,” Ellison told The Yorkshire Post. “I wish him all the best. He’s a good trainer. Altior is a machine, but one mistake knock you out.”

Ellison, who saddled his 1,000th career winner last summer, knows this from personal experience. Twice, Latalomne was leading the Queen Mother Champion Chase. Twice, in successive years, he came to grief at the fateful penultimate fence.

Yet he has always held Forest Bihan, a French-bred horse owned by Tickhill’s Phil Martin, in the highest of regards. The problem, says Ellison, was that last season’s race tactics were too aggressive.

Now the six-year-old is ridden more conservatively, Forest Bihan, he says, is able to accelerate through the gears late on and would have been a more emphatic winner over Jefferson’s Cloudy Dreams at Doncaster last time out if it was not for a bad blunder at the third last under Aidan Coleman.

“It was a great run. He made that mistake three out. If he hadn’t done that, he would have won easy,” added the trainer whose Nietzsche has an outsider’s chance in Wednesday’s Fred Winter Juvenile Hurdle. “You can’t be afraid of one horse (Altior).”

It is the same with Jefferson, who intends to have three runners on Cheltenham’s opening day – Cloudy Dreams; Cyrus Darius, who is a respected outsider in the feature Champion Hurdle, and the progressive Double W’s in the concluding novice handicap chase.

Though Double W’s is probably Jefferson’s best chance of a winner – his race is a handicap while the Arkle and Champion Hurdle are Grade One races where horses compete off level weights – Cloudy Dreams has been catching the eye all season in the white, yellow and green colours of triple Grand National-winning owner Trevor Hemmings.

After wins at Carlisle and Haydock, the seven-year-old returned to the latter track where he was runner-up to Buveur D’Air, who has subsequently been switched back to smaller obstacles and will bid to give the aforementioned Henderson a record sixth Champion Hurdle win on Tuesday.

There was also no disgrace in the horse’s defeat to Ellison’s Forest Bihan at Doncaster – Jefferson’s charge was conceding three pounds to the victor and only lost by just over a length.

The trainer notes Altior has still been left in the Champion Chase – presumably in case the Willie Mullins-trained Douvan, Ireland’s banker of the week, suffers any kind of mishap – while Jefferson’s stable jockey, Brian Hughes, remains in the form of his life and second only to Richard Johnson in this season’s standings.

“If Altior happened to go there, Cloudy would have a hell of a chance,” said Jefferson, 70, ahead of his first Arkle runner.

“He’s in good fettle. He’s working nicely and schooled well. Cheltenham, it’s a nice place to go and have a runner, but it’s even harder to win. Who’s afraid of one horse? Look, even if he’s second or third, it’s a good pot, better than you’d get anywhere else for winning. We’ve been running him in deep ground which hasn’t really been suitable, but he’s needed the experience. It’s the same as last season. Once January comes, Cloudy thrives. His grey coat is gleaming and he’s really strong. I couldn’t be happier.”