Liv­er­pool in last eight of Cham­pi­ons League

Paul Hay­ward re­ports on a record-equalling 18th vic­tory


Liv­er­pool scored a fa­mous away vic­tory against Bay­ern Mu­nich in the Cham­pi­ons League last night, win­ning 3-1 in Ger­many af­ter a goal­less first leg at An­field last month. Two goals from Sa­dio Mane and an­other from Vir­gil van Dijk put Jur­gen Klopp’s men into the quar­ter-fi­nals. They join Manch­ester City, Manch­ester United and Tot­ten­ham Hot­spur in the hat for to­mor­row’s draw. It is the first time since 2009 that four Eng­lish clubs have made it through to the last eight.

Al­tior can win beau­ti­fully or win ugly. The cham­pion two-mile steeplechaser joined the pan­theon here with a de­fence of his ti­tle that called for tenac­ity as much as class.

They like easy win­ners here – wit­ness Tiger Roll in the Cross Coun­try – but they also love to see great­ness earned in bat­tle. In the Bet­way Queen Mother Cham­pion Chase, the loom­ing, grace­ful Al­tior lost the lead in the straight and then re­gained it, fight­ing off a chal­lenger on ei­ther side and quick­en­ing through the mid­dle to a record­e­qualling 18th con­sec­u­tive jumprace win. To­mor­row’s Gold Cup win­ner will do well to de­pose him as this year’s Fes­ti­val idol.

Nico de Boinville, who ar­rived stylishly late to win the pre­vi­ous race on Wil­liam Henry, is the coolest cat in the weigh­ing room, and was nerve­less when Al­tior be­came the meat in a sand­wich be­tween Poli­to­logue and Sceau Royal. The toll on Nicky Hen­der­son, Al­tior’s trainer, can be mea­sured by the mois­ture in his eyes, and some­times by full-blown tears.

“It’s nice when it’s over,” said Hen­der­son, who also trained the bril­liant Sprinter Sacre, twice a win­ner of this cham­pi­onship for quick chasers. “It’s like hit­ting your head against a brick wall. The only nice bit is when it stops.”

But there is no stop­ping Al­tior. This length-and-three-quar­ters win added a sec­ond Queen Mother to the Supreme Novices’ Hur­dle and Arkle Chase he won on pre­vi­ous vis­its. His 13th con­sec­u­tive win over fences was his 18th over jumps and took his earn­ings to £1.14mil­lion. A 19th would take him past Big Buck’s, an­other Fes­ti­val peren­nial.

Next sea­son Hen­der­son is think­ing of mov­ing this won­der­fully fluid and im­pos­ing nine-year-old up in dis­tance to con­test the King Ge­orge VI Chase on Box­ing Day, but a third Queen Mother would match the hat-trick of Badsworth Boy from 1983-85.

“The win­ning streak he’s put up has been just in­cred­i­ble,” De Boinville said. “How many horses have done that? Big Buck’s. He’s in the high­est ech­e­lon of race­horses.”

The warmth gen­er­ated by Hen­der­son’s 63rd Fes­ti­val win­ner was recog­nis­ably Al­tior’s full grad­u­a­tion to the ranks of revered Chel­tenham he­roes. He was al­ways highly thought of, but per­haps the mem­ory of Sprinter Sacre’s bril­liance was still too fresh for him to find his own clear space in his­tory.

Ear­lier, Sprinter Sacre, the twom­ile cham­pion in 2013 and 2016, pa­raded for the crowds, and re­vived mem­o­ries of his un­likely, emo­tional re­turn from in­jury. Al­tior, on the other hand, has kept pound­ing his con­tem­po­raries with­out in­ter­rup­tion. His win­ning se­quence started on Oct 10, 2015 and he went off here the 4-11 favourite de­spite re­cent, mi­nor con­cerns about his jump­ing.

Need­ing a plan to de­pose the cham­pion, the oth­ers tried to in­flict a slow pace on the best horse in the race. “I was al­ways con­fi­dent I had the mo­men­tum there, but the race wasn’t run to suit – at any stage,” said De Boinville, whose mount made one mis­take, at the water jump. “We’ve had to do a bit of the don­key work and ev­ery­one has tried to do me for toe [fin­ish­ing speed]. He’s very ver­sa­tile. I don’t mind, but I thought, ‘Oh, here we go, I’m go­ing to have to do the don­key work’.”

Don­key work has sel­dom been car­ried out more class­ily. But when Sceau Royal jumped past Al­tior at the last fence, Hen­der­son thought: “Hell’s bells, we’ve got trou­ble here. It looked like it. The amaz­ing thing is how he just picked up. It’s what cham­pi­ons do.” De Boinville re­flected: “I think he was in great form com­ing into this race, but on that ground he was not at his best. I was just think­ing it was a bit hold­ing and tacky. Poli­to­logue is not a bad horse. He stays two-and-a-half miles. But we’ve won by [nearly] two lengths in the end.”

Hen­der­son has de­scribed as “tor­ture” the wait for a top horse to come home vic­to­ri­ous. De Boinville is too com­posed, too self as­sured, to suc­cumb to anx­i­ety: “No, you’ve got to re­mem­ber that when you’re rid­ing you’re so in the mo­ment, you don’t have time to think about any­thing else. That’s why it’s good ther­apy.” Hen­der­son is an es­pe­cially good cus­to­dian of these true cham­pi­ons. He said: “You just go back to the Sprinter [Sacre] days. How lucky are we? You re­tire one and you find an­other. You can’t believe it’s pos­si­ble re­ally. It makes it all worth while. He’s some star. “They’ve both done their bit for us – for rac­ing, re­ally. The peo­ple were fan­tas­tic. It’s lovely when peo­ple take to horses, when horses be­come pub­lic.”

In Aus­tralian Flat rac­ing Winx has won 31 times in a row. No Na­tional Hunt horse could match that, but a 19th vic­tory for Al­tior is a record worth hav­ing. “It’s nice to do it, but then you wake up in the mid­dle of the night and think about Winx and re­alise this is pretty in­signif­i­cant,” Hen­der­son said.

Hardly. On un­suit­ably soft ground, with a tac­ti­cal am­bush, Al­tior scored the win that added courage and char­ac­ter to his re­sume. Hen­der­son though could not hide from the stress. “You’re lucky to have them,” he said, “but on the other hand they come with health warn­ings.”

Vic­tory charge: Nico de Boinville on Al­tior (cen­tre) clears the last on the way to win­ning the Bet­way Queen Mother Cham­pion Chase from Poli­to­logue (left) and Sceau Royal, to the de­light of trainer Nicky Hen­der­son (left)

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