Cheltenham Festival: Serious challenge awaits Altior in Queen Mother Champion Chase

Altior and Nico de Boinville win last year's Arkle Trophy at Cheltenham.
Altior and Nico de Boinville win last year's Arkle Trophy at Cheltenham.
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NICKY HENDERSON is playing down expectations as Altior looks to confirm his pre-eminence as Britain’s top steeplechaser in today’s Queen Mother Champion Chase.

The scintillating two-mile chaser – unbeaten from seven starts over fences – has long been regarded as the heir apparent to Henderson’s Sprinter Sacre.

ANYONE'S RACE: Trainer Nicky Henderson. Picture: Simon Galloway/PA

ANYONE'S RACE: Trainer Nicky Henderson. Picture: Simon Galloway/PA

Victory would also see Altior join the Cheltenham greats as one of the elite horses to have won at three successive National Hunt Festivals. He’s that special.

Yet the coronation of last year’s Arkle Trophy winner is no formality after Nico de Boinville’s mount was found to be slightly lame with an infected foot on Monday morning.

Though he was given a clean bill of health, heavy ground – and the fact Altior has raced just once this season – are negatives ahead of today’s feature.

And Henderson, whose Buveur D’Air was a narrow winner of yesterday’s Champion Hurdle, is more than respectful of the challenge that will be posed by the Willie Mullins-trained stablemates Douvan and Min.

It’s going to be fun, it’s got to be, otherwise we wouldn’t be doing it. It’s not a two-horse race, it never is. It’s going to be a very exciting clash.

Trainer Nicky Henderson

“Softish ground worries me a little bit, and of course Min does – I’m frightened of everybody,” said Henderson, referring to Altior’s defeat of Min in the 2016 Supreme Novices Hurdle at Cheltenham.

“It’s going to be fun, it’s got to be, otherwise we wouldn’t be doing it. It’s not a two-horse race, it never is. It’s going to be a very exciting clash.”

Meanwhile, Presenting Percy, winner of last year’s Pertemps Final, is reported to be in sparkling form ahead of his return to Cheltenham for the RSA Chase – a three-mile championship race for steeplechasing stars of the future.

Although suffering defeat at the hands of Irish Grand National winner Our Duke last time out, connections of the Patrick Kelly-trained seven-year-old are hopeful.

Owner Philip Reynolds said: “He gave us a super day last year. It was following on from Mall Dini the year before and I never thought lightning would strike twice, but it was fantastic.

“I think opinion is probably split on whether his last run was a good run or a bad run, given we were getting weight from Our Duke, but I think people forget Our Duke won an Irish National by 14 lengths.”

All eyes, however, will be on Bryony Frost – arguably the riding discovery of the season – who will be seeking an eighth win on her horse of a lifetime Black Corton.

Frost, whose father Jimmy won the 1989 Grand National on Little Polveir, has illuminated racing this season with her enthusiasm and determination.

The 22-year-old, who only teamed up with the Paul Nicholls-trained Black Corton at Worcester last summer, said: “It’s been such a road up to it with all the excitement and build up.

“It will be great arriving and getting in the car park at Cheltenham on the day.

“People are saying it has got to come to an end and I say if you can predict that you should go get yourself a lottery ticket.”

Gordon Elliott is confident Samcro can live up to expectations by passing his toughest to date in the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle today.

Teenager Jack Kennedy’s mount is the new star of irish racing and Elliott said: “Samcro is an absolute pleasure to train.

“He just does everything so easy at home and is very obliging and laid back.

“Unbeaten in six starts, he always does it well, but this will be the biggest task of his career and he may not find things quite as easy as he has done in recent runs but we’re still confident.”

Sam Spinner, trained in North Yorkshire, and Irish Champion Hurdle hero Supasundae are among 17 horses declared for tomorrow’s Sun Bets Stayers’ Hurdle.

The Jedd O’Keeffe-trained Sam Spinner, the mount of Joe Colliver, heads ante-post lists, with testing conditions no concern for the winner of the Grade One Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot.