Noel Fehily bowled over by Altior
Views from connections ahead of the Racing Post Henry VIII Novices' Chase at Sandown on Saturday.
Noel Fehily riding Altior last time
Noel Fehily labelled Altior as good a horse as he has ever sat on bar champion chaser Master Minded ahead of his appearance in the Racing Post Henry VIII Novices' Chase at Sandown.
The Supreme Novices' Hurdle winner was already a short price for the Arkle in March before he even jumped a fence in public and he hardened even further still after making a seamless transition to fences at Kempton.
With regular rider Nico de Boinville on the sidelines due to a broken arm, Nicky Henderson handed the prized mount to the experienced Fehily.
A few seasons ago Fehily was lucky enough to ride a few of Paul Nicholls' stable stars when Ruby Walsh was injured and he partnered Master Minded to victory in the Amlin 1965 Chase at Ascot and in the Tingle Creek in 2010.
"I can't wait to get back on him, he was very exciting the last day," Fehily told At The Races.
"He was very, very good there, showed loads of scope and a good brain.
"Bar Master Minded, I think he's as good a horse as I've ever sat on."
Henderson told his www.stanjames.com Road To Cheltenham blog that there will be "no excuses" at Sandown:
He said: "Altior has come out of his Kempton race in excellent shape and Noel Fehily came to Seven Barrows (on Friday morning) to give him a quick jump in the indoor school as it's been a bit too frosty to go elsewhere.
"We always gave him a school before he ran, even over hurdles last season, so it's what he's used to.
"Obviously his Kempton win easy for him and we didn't really learn a great deal as his jumping wasn't really tested because he was only really doing his own thing out in front.
"It looks a great race, and I wouldn't have it any other way. For a contest of its grade, you need it to be competitive and this has always been a very-high class race and probably the first of the big novice chases.
"There won't be any hanging around and I'll be very surprised if he's making the running this time as Charbel likes to go a good gallop and Marracudja has lots of pace, too.
"There are no excuses and I'm looking forward to getting him out again."
Despite the small field, he will not have things his own way as Kim Bailey's Charbel won a hot contest at Uttoxeter on his chasing debut, beating Le Prezien and Top Notch.
"We went to Uttoxeter expecting him to run incredibly well," said Bailey.
"He improved over the summer. He'd gone back to his owners and done really well and he was a bigger horse going into the race.
"We always felt he'd be a chaser and not a hurdler, it was a good performance.
"It was a tough a race at Uttoxeter – both the second and third have come out and won since – as it is on Saturday.
"Where do you go? Do you go for a little novice chase or take on the big boys?
"He deserves to go and take on Altior at this time of year as it will pinpoint where we go later in the season.
"I have in my mind he might be a two-and-a-half-mile horse rather than a two-miler and Saturday will tell us an awful lot.
"Sandown is never easy, but David Bass was very good on him at Uttoxeter and met every fence right.
"He'll be very lucky to do that at Sandown over those Railway Fences, though.
"It will be a proper race and very exciting to watch.
"It will be a decent test for Altior, completely different to what he faced at Kempton."
Another strong contender is Paul Nicholls' Marracudja, two from two over fences and an early flag-bearer for new syndicate Ditcheat Thoroughbreds.
"It's all very exciting, a Grade One runner in such early days for the syndicate," said syndicate manager Ian Fogg.
"He absolutely loves jumping, that's for sure, and all 20 available shares in him have been sold.
"His owners are having a ball. He has already won at Cheltenham and we don't actually think that is his ideal track, according to Paul, so he wasn't at his best there.
"This is a big test for him but he's a fabulous horse. He's very fresh every morning on the gallops.
"I leave plans to Paul – he knows everything inside out – but the inference has been that, come what may, we're unlikely to head to Cheltenham in March as we think he's better on flatter tracks."
Tom George's Max Ward, who returned from a lengthy absence to win at Huntingdon last month, completes the field.