COUNTDOWN TO CHELTENHAM: Altior and Native River back with a bang

Altior (right) on his way to victory, and a classy comeback, in the Betfair Exchange Game Spirit Chase at Newbury on Saturday.
Altior (right) on his way to victory, and a classy comeback, in the Betfair Exchange Game Spirit Chase at Newbury on Saturday.

The weather didn’t play ball, but since when has it? Behind the veneer of sheeting rain and icy winds, Newbury’s pre-Cheltenham Festival meeting at the weekend very much fitted the ‘Super Saturday’ template that was created for it.

After a couple of lean years, the Betfair Handicap Hurdle was re-fuelled by a maximum field and the prospect of a fascinating race.

Trainer Amy Murphy and jockey Jack Quinlan celebrate Kalashnikov's triumph in the Betfair Handicap Hurdle at soggy Newbury on Saturday.

Trainer Amy Murphy and jockey Jack Quinlan celebrate Kalashnikov's triumph in the Betfair Handicap Hurdle at soggy Newbury on Saturday.

And while the trials for the Gold Cup and the Champion Chase were only three-runner affairs, they were laced with interest, thanks to the return to action of two of the stars of last season, NATIVE RIVER and ALTIOR.

It rankled that these Grade Two races, the Betfair-sponsored Denman Chase and Game Spirit Chase, lagged way behind the handicap feature in terms of prize money. How can it be right that a well-weighted novice, KALASHNIKOV, can land fully £60,000 more for winning a handicap than Altior, arguably the best Jumps horse in training, for treating the soggy crowd to a comeback display that oozed class? No wonder these contests, which are framed to be stepping-stones to glory at the Festival, fail to attract contestants. Where is the incentive?

As he has proved with the likes of See You Then and Sprinter Sacre, there is no better trainer than Nicky Henderson for nursing a top horse back to full health, and Altior was majestic after his absence with wind problems in dismissing the consistent and much-improved Tingle Creek winner POLITOLOGUE. I was surprised that Paul Nicholls’s grey attempted to make all and even more surprised by his rather lean and light appearance. But no amount of tweaking with tactics or physical demeanour could have lived with the favourite, who is nailed on to land the big one next month.

Native River also marked his return in style and must have provided a bucketload of relief for Colin Tizzard after the failures of many of his other stable stars this term, such as Cue Card, Thistlecrack, Fox Norton and Finian’s Oscar. This is a horse for whom front-running does come naturally, and there are few more game and genuine attitudes than his at the business end of races. The nuts and bolts of his performance read well on paper but, of his two rivals, the runner-up, CLOUDY DREAM, palpably does not stay 3m, while SAPHIR DU RHEU palpably blew up from the third last after a similarly lengthy absence. In an open year for the Gold Cup, many will fancy Native River to improve on last season’s third, but he will need plenty of give in the ground to blunt the superior tactical speed of others.

Give in the ground was certainly not lacking for the big hurdle race. In fact, they ended up so spreadeagled by the line that it assumed the appearance of a Heavy-ground grueller, the form of which might not be too trustworthy. OK, the first two home boast Grade One credentials on their CVs, but many of their rivals could not handle the combination of an exacting gallop and stamina-sapping conditions. Indeed, Willie Mullins’s runner-up, BLEU ET ROUGE (a Coral Cup winner in waiting if ever I’ve seen one), was the only horse of all 24 to travel with any comfort, and it was informative afterwards to hear one of the jockeys, Nico De Boinville, say “it rode like a pretty brutal race as we went very hard in ground as bad as it gets”.

As a result, it’s hard to assess the performance of the winner, Kalashnikov, because he barely travelled a yard, yet still bolted up, putting more than 21 lengths between himself and fourth. Amy Murphy’s 5yo was being ridden or scrubbed along from as early as the first flight down the back and while you have to admire his resolution in answering every one of jockey Jack Quinlan’s calls, you also have to wonder how much such an examination will have taken out of him.

Did he struggle because he didn’t enjoy the ground, as he hadn’t seemed to either when grinding out a similar performance when second in the Tolworth Hurdle at Sandown a month earlier? Or was he labouring because he needs further than 2m, which he is bred for, and/or requires fences, which he is built for? We will find out the answer when he tackles the opening race of the Festival, the Sky Bet Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. Personally, I would much rather be on his ready Tolworth conqueror, Tom George’s SUMMERVILLE BOY who, inexplicably, can be backed at more than twice the odds of Kalashnikov.

Quite what odds you can get on BARTERS HILL reviving his peak form, I’m not too sure. But they must be three figures after he blotted the copybook of the high-profile horses making their comebacks at Newbury. At his best, Ben Pauling’s 8yo would have carried home his rivals in the 3m handicap hurdle, especially off a very fair mark of 142, and he was duly backed to do so. But making all on such testing ground was too much of an ask after 456 days off the track. He was harried for the lead and folded tamely in the home straight.

Elsewhere on the card, I was impressed by the change of gear unleashed by Henderson’s improving novice hurdler, WHATSWRONGWITHYOU, in the first. Yes, it was a weak contest, particularly after the exit of his main rival at the first flight, but his form is stacking up nicely and a rise in the weights for this win of just 6lb to 139 seems very generous to me and should enable the champion trainer to find a good handicap with him.

At the other end of the afternoon, the conditions did rather spoil what had promised to be a stonking Bumper. Both BREWIN’UPASTORM and GOOD BOY BOBBY came to win but couldn’t pick up in the mud while, from his more prominent pitch, ACEY MILAN simply kept galloping. I wouldn’t be inclined to desert the former two, but Anthony Honeyball’s winner should be respected because it’s very rare for 4yos to land this race.

So, with ‘Super Saturday’ out of the way, just two more major weekends remain before the Festival excitement cranks up a million gears. A superb Betfair Ascot Chase is on the cards this weekend, as well as the last throw of the Festival dice for some Irish horses at Gowran Park, before a sprinkling of graded heats at Kempton the following week.

If there was such a thing as a Cheltenham Advent calendar (and of course, there should be), we’d be opening the windows by now.