In sports like boxing, there is an air of tangible anticipation and frisson when two of the best in the business go head-to-head and toe-to-toe in the centre of the ring.
It’s rare in horse racing that the way is cleared for two of the finest campaigners around to go at it, but Saturday’s Christy Chase at Ascot will bear witness to a phenomenal battle between two of the premier National Hunt horses around.
You have to go back to the days of Kauto Star vs Denman for the last time a heavyweight racing battle got everybody talking, and Paul Nicholls – who trained both of those megastars – will be in the blue corner with his horse Cyrname.
In the red corner will be the unbeaten-over-obstacles and undisputed Altior, trained by Nicky Henderson and looking to extend a winning streak that dates back to 2015.
The intrigue comes from Altior making a step up in trip from his normal two miles to the 2m 5f mark – will he have enough gas in the tank to see off the young pretender?
|Trainer||Nicky Henderson||Paul Nicholls|
|Owner||Patricia Pugh||J & S de la Hey|
|Jockey||Nico de Boinville||Harry Cobden|
|Career Win %||90%||38%|
|Ascot Win %||100%||40%|
Cyrname is younger and a proven steeplechaser, but a few blemishes on his record in 2018 means that Altior goes into Saturday’s battle as the slight odds-on favourite.
Punters, however, are not being put off from backing the plucky upstart. Ascot is a right-handed track, and in recent times Altior has shown a penchant for jumping to the left. He has an unblemished record on this track, but will the step up in distance allied to the jumping issue make him more vulnerable than ever before?
The handicappers can barely split them either, and like the classic boxing trilogies this is a rivalry that could start on Saturday and run through the King George VI Chase and even onto the Cheltenham Festival next year.
It’s a salivating prospect!
What They Say
It’s always interesting to get the perspective of the two camps heading into such a mouth-watering contest.
Surprisingly, Nicky Henderson has been quite pessimistic in the build-up, questioning whether Altior is a stayer or better off at the two-mile mark.
“If he’s to be a true champion, he has to win over a variety of trips, but I still say the way he works he doesn’t look like he’s going to stay,” he said.
“If he’s a stayer, he’s the most remarkable horse I’ve seen.”
Taking the ride on Altior will be jockey Nico de Boinville, and he is more optimistic about his steed’s stamina.
“I thought at the back end of last year that what we’re doing [stepping up] is the right decision. He’s been working very well and showing a load of speed at home, so we’ll see.
“I’m going out there to ride a nice normal race and keep it very simple.”
Matching the 30-year-old stride for stride, or at least hoping to, is Harry Cobden, who will take the ride on Cyrname. He stoked the competitive fires by saying: “I hope he beats Altior.
“But it’s a hard race. Altior is stepping up in trip and they are fairly confident he’ll improve for it. I schooled Cyrname the other day and he was in great form.
“I don’t know if he’s improved but he felt brilliant.”