Rumble will just have to wait
Will Hayler reflects upon the action from Newbury on Saturday and how the rumble in the jungle will have to wait for another day.
Nico De Boinville checks how far clear he is on the big screen as Altior comes home clear at Newbury.
Sometimes the real thrill is just in the anticipation.
Despite Nicky Henderson not yet being able to find any sense of vindication in the decision to send Altior over fences this season, in self-denial he continues to refuse to bring forward the much-anticipated "rumble in the jungle" between his nascent star and seemingly-unbeatable Irish rival Douvan.
Even after watching Altior toy with Fox Norton and Traffic Fluide before putting them out of their misery in the home straight of the Betfair Exchange Chase, Henderson was still weighing up how things might have been had the decision been taken at the start of the season to remain over hurdles this year.
"It's so far, so good over fences, but the fact is that he'd probably be odds-on for the Champion Hurdle now if we'd have stayed on that path – I'm pretty sure he'd have won the Christmas Hurdle and those races," he said, in a quite uncharacteristic affirmation of his absolute faith in the horse's raw ability.
Henderson admitted that it would be "inevitable that people want to make comparisons" between Altior and Sprinter Sacre, his winner of the same race five years ago, who had the honour of walking around the parade ring before the race, but not allowed to canter with the five runners to the start. "I would have been seriously worried that if he had we wouldn't have been able to make him stop," said the trainer. "In his head, he's still a racehorse, who has come here to win."
Would Altior have beaten an on-song Sprinter Sacre? It's impossible to say, but it was very hard to find any degree of fault in this performance. He jumped as if springs had been tied to his feet and defied fears about the soft ground so strong that Henderson had gone to bed on Friday night having already decided to pull him out in the morning. Indeed, it was only after a particularly lengthy walk of the course in the morning that he was persuaded to take his chance.
It was to the meeting's benefit that Henderson changed his mind, because Altior's performance unquestionably lit up a day on which racegoers were peppered almost from start to finish by fluffy white snow that would not have looked out of place on a Christmas card.
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While the connections of so many of this season's stars have kept Cheltenham plans fluid, Henderson refused to be swayed from the stated plan at the start of the campaign.
"We are going to stay in the Arkle for sure," he said. "Buveur D'Air is going to win the Champion Hurdle and I will get in a muddle if I change them all around."
As for the possibility of taking Douvan on in the Champion Chase a season earlier than expected, while sympathetic to the pleas he offered little hope of such a bold move.
"It would be fun, but no thank you," he said. "It's wonderful to think about that great rumble in the jungle happening, but perhaps not for another 12 months.
"I'm not being charitable to Willie Mullins, I can assure you, but after the luck he has had of late I think we'll let him have the Champion Chase this season."
What about the Tingle Creek first or even Sandown, Aintree or Punchestown this season? "I don't know," was the reply. "Let's just get the Arkle out of the way first. What's nice about today is that this race did fit in perfectly so I'm pleased we did it now – if we hadn't run today, we'd have been thinking about racecourse gallops and the like."
Who'd have thought that turning up at the races and running would prove the wisest decision, eh? More of that sort of thinking would do the British jumps racing scene no harm at all.
Also taking starring roles at Newbury on the Super Saturday card were Nigel Twiston-Davies, trainer of Betfair Hurdle winner Ballyandy, and Aidan Coleman, a late stand-in for Richard Johnson aboard Native River, who simply did what Native River does on his way to proving comfortably too hot for Le Mercurey and a listless Bristol De Mai in the Betfair Denman Chase.
Coleman revealed after the race that Johnson, who stood himself down with "flu or something", had given him the instructions as to how to get the best out of Native River and he'd simply done as told – bar a disagreement over the water jump at the end of the first circuit.
"That was my fault," Coleman said. "I was sort of caught in two minds as to whether go long or not, and I should have just told him what to do. He was the professional – I'm still learning."
Twiston-Davies insisted that he should have won the training performance of the day for "managing to get Ballyandy beaten three times" on his only previous starts over hurdles – the result of which was the tempting handicap mark of 135 which he'd made plain to everyone that he thought looked some way too generous.
"If you're asking me to explain how he'd managed to not to win over hurdles up to now, I can't," he said. "Perhaps he was a bit unlucky at Cheltenham, but I can't tell you anything more – we just somehow sort of knew he was better than that."
It was a performance surely did no harm to the Sky Bet Supreme prospects of Ballyandy's old rival Moon Racer if David Pipe can somehow get the wheels working again in time for the Festival. Perhaps if he can, unlike Henderson, Pipe will find himself increasingly unable to resist the attraction of a rumble of his own in the Champion Hurdle.
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