Winners make impressive comebacks at Newbury, while a rookie fires off a win for his young trainer and an impressive lead lands bumper success
THREE-RUNNER races on an afternoon of relentlessly foul weather in early February tend to make the hearts of only the most ardent National Hunt fans soar. However, after digesting the performances of two popular chasers in Newbury’s pair of key Cheltenham trials, there was a sense of renewed optimism ahead of the Festival itself.
A Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase shorn of Altior would be unsatisfactory indeed and the 2017 Arkle winner left trainer Nicky Henderson running out of superlatives following his incredible effort in the Betfair Exchange Chase.
“I think you’d say that was perfection,” he beamed.
Altior had missed his intended comeback in December’s
Tingle Creek when requiring a wind operation. In defeating Politologue, the horse who took
that Sandown title in his absence, by a comfortable four lengths in unfavourably soft ground, Patricia Pugh’s handsome eight-year-old is still unbeaten in seven over fences and very much the one to beat in the two-mile championship.
“If anything was going to test his wind it was that ground,” Henderson continued. “There must be a lot of improvement left. He had only done three bits of work, and it’s all so easy for him. It’s just pure class.”
Altior was given a clean bill of health afterwards and still has more than a little of his illustrious former stablemate Sprinter
Sacre about him at this stage of his career. Min looks his chief Cheltenham rival on the evidence at Leopardstown the previous week, while there remains that glorious uncertainty of Douvan emerging from the wilderness in time. Right now, Altior is a few steps ahead of him.
AN IMPROVED DISPLAY
THE Timico Cheltenham
Gold Cup was another feature event badly in need of another element, following a number of disappointments and dropouts in recent weeks, and one of the most reliable of campaigners came to its rescue.
Native River had taken the Hennessy and Welsh National prior to a defeat of Le Mercurey in last year’s Denman Chase, setting him up for a good third behind Sizing John at the Festival. A ligament problem had kept him off the racecourse since then and a 12-length margin over the highclass Cloudy Dream in Saturday’s Denman counts as an improved display again.
Despite being chestnut, white-
faced and a front-runner,
Native River does not really fit into the flashy bracket. Instead, he grinds his rivals into submission and a couple of fine late leaps took him well away from the patientlyridden Cloudy Dream, who is likely to head for the Ryanair Chase now.
“It was absolutely what we wanted,” said trainer Colin Tizzard. “You’re desperate to run them, especially when all those big races are on, but if we’d run him before Christmas we might not have got him to Cheltenham.”
No disrespect is intended towards Definitly Red, who was a convincing winner of the Cotswold Chase, or Edwulf after his near-Lazarus comeback in the Irish Gold Cup, but it still appears a shade fanciful to imagine either being quite at the level for Cheltenham’s championship. Native River has been there before and now disputes 6/1 second favouritism with Sizing John, only behind Might Bite in the ante-post betting.
“Going into the last Cheltenham we had a run of 52 runners without a winner, so we weren’t in the best of form,” Tizzard added. “Two very good horses went by him that day, but he’d had three or four hard races. He’ll go there a much fresher horse anyway.”
YOUNG TRAINER WINS BIG
AMY MURPHY became Britain’s youngest trainer at only 24 when taking out her licence 18 months ago. A former assistant to Luca Cumani and based in the Flat stronghold of Newmarket, she has bravely opted to take the dual-purpose route and half of her 30 or so horses are jumpers.
She has made a bright impression with about a dozen winners under each code, but landing the £150,000 Betfair Hurdle — the season’s most valuable of its kind — was another level altogether.
Murphy was most taken aback when Willie Mullins — a trainer she revealed is her idol — introduced himself when congratulating her after Kalashnikov had beaten his runner Bleu Et Rouge by fourand-a-half lengths. The next duty was to call her father Paul, Kalashnikov’s owner, who had just touched down on holiday in South Africa.
“I’m not very good at watching my horses, but I managed to see the last hurdle,” she said.
Kalashnikov is still a rookie who had only lost his unbeaten streak when second in the Tolworth Hurdle. Murphy admitted she had been “checking the weather every hour” as she worried about the rain and expects the horse to prefer the better ground in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham.
It was also a major moment in the career of the hard-working but largely unrecognised Newmarketbased jockey Jack Quinlan.
“He’s related to Kicking King so hopefully he’s going to be a top jumper in years to come,” said the rider.
‘If anything was going to test his wind it was
NICKY HENDERSON ON ALTIOR
Native River makes a successful return to the racecourse to land the Denman by 12-lengths
’I think you’d say he was perfection’: Nicky Henderson praises the Betfair Exchange Chase
winner Altior (left)
Jack Quinlan and Kalashnikov land the £150,000 Betfair Hurdle