Paul Nicholls insists Altior has got “questions to answer” as this year’s champion trainer bids to stop the superstar chaser from winning the Grade One bet365 Celebration Chase for a record fourth time tomorrow (Saturday).
Nicholls fields Greaneteen in the two-mile contest after being pleased with his performance when fourth behind Put The Kettle On in last month’s Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase at Cheltenham.
Bryony Frost is booked to ride Greaneteen and the Ditcheat trainer said of the seven-year-old, a 15-2 chance with bet365: “He came out of Cheltenham and appears to be really well. He ran well that day and ran well in the Tingle Creek on ground that appeared to be soft enough for him, so he’ll be better here on better ground and seems in really good shape.
“If you go on Champion Chase form he was beaten two lengths, he ran a really good race and surprised a few as the outsider that day, but we’ve always held him in high regard.
“I think it’s a very open race, we’ve obviously got a champion chaser to beat but Altior’s got questions to answer really as he’s not getting any younger, so it’s a really good race.”
Altior was ruled out of this year’s Festival supporting WellChild after being found to be coughing in the build-up to the Cheltenham showpiece, but Henderson is hopeful that his star is now back to full fitness.
The 11-year-old is bidding to extend his record as the most successful horse in bet365 Celebration Chase history and after last year’s race was cancelled due to COVID-19, it would be a fourth consecutive triumph having landed the 2017, 2018 and 2019 renewals.
Altior has only made it onto the track on one occasion this season when second in the Grade Two Ladbrokes Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton Park in December.
And trainer Nicky Henderson said: “He’s enjoyed this race in the past and enjoyed Sandown so it’ll suit him on Saturday.
“The competition is top-class and I think tells you enough when Dan Skelton is going over to Ireland (with Nube Negra) because the other horse (Put The Kettle On) is coming to England! All is good so far and hopefully, nothing thwarts us at the last minute this time.”
Sixteen runners are expected in the Grade Three bet365 Gold Cup Handicap Chase and Ditcheat trainer Nicholls plays another card in his strong hand for Saturday in Enrilo.
The current 6-1 joint-second favourite with bet365 has impressed in his first season over fences and Nicholls believes the seven-year-old has every chance of putting in a good performance.
Nicholls, seeking a fifth victory in the contest, said: “We kept him nice and fresh and he hasn’t done a lot since Christmas, but he’s in great order. If he stays he must have a great chance of running very well.
“He’s been running in small novice chases so he has to cope with running in a big field, but I don’t see it being a problem, we’ll ride him nice and handy and we hope he’ll go well.”
Meanwhile, Christian Williams has revealed that he has had this race in mind for five-year-old Kitty’s Light for some time.
He said: “We’ve targeted this race with him right back when he finished third in the Badger Beers Trophy at Wincanton, so we’ve worked back from this race. We gave him two nice runs in all-weather bumpers to keep him away from the worst of the ground in the winter and he’s managed to get his head in front at Kelso since, so it’s all systems go.
“He’s training really well and he’s in really good form in himself so the only thing is his Flat pedigree now and whether his jumping holds up. His jumping has got better with each run, so it’s up to him now and as long as he’s figured out how to get from A to B without being too exuberant he’s turning into a really nice horse.”
Williams also fields the ultra-consistent Cap Du Nord, who he feels has the perfect profile for this kind of race.
He said of the eight-year-old: “If you put a line through his last run at Kelso he’s got a really nice profile for the race. He’s been competitive in good staying chases during the winter and a lot of the staying chasers can run disappointingly over hurdles, so we’ve put a line through that last run and without looking at that we think he’s got a chance.”
Elsewhere on the card is the Grade Two bet365 Oaksey Chase over 2m 6f, for which Frodon is a 4-7 favourite with the sponsor with a fit-again Bryony Frost in the saddle. The nine-year-old has enjoyed another fine campaign and trainer Paul Nicholls is expecting another good display.
He said: “He seems well after the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Obviously, you never know but he’s had a nice rest and we’ve built him up again and he seems really well. It’s a good race and it’s a race we’ve always wanted to run in as it’s ideal for him.”
The main danger to Frodon looks to be the Nicky Henderson-trained Mister Fisher, who was travelling well on the front end when unseating his rider in the Betway Bowl at Aintree earlier this month.
Referring to his mishap on Merseyside, Henderson said: “We’re very happy with him, he was just unfortunate.
“He didn’t have a race, he just jinked at a fence in front of the stand. He just took his eyes off the last fence, looking for cameras on the ground and then did the same thing at the next fence looking for them – silly boy!
“It was too early to tell whether he’d win but he came to no harm and you’ve got two and a half miles around Sandown on good ground - it should be ideal and he’s in great form.”
Meanwhile, Dan Skelton sends out Born Survivor, who returned to winning ways at Stratford last time. He said: “It was a good win for him last time but this is much deeper.
“You’re taking on two that have got recent Graded form and it’s going to be very hard, but there’s good prize money for third if he runs to market expectations and he’s been a great horse. He’ll love the ground and you’ve got to compete in these races or there won’t be enough runners, so we’re having a go.”
The fourth and final Graded race on the card is the Grade 2 bet365 Select Hurdle over 2m 5f. The seven-strong field is an interesting one and includes Pic D’Orhy, who Paul Nicholls feels will be perfectly suited by the race.
He said: “It was his first run since wind surgery at Taunton and he surprised us with how well he ran. I’ve always had this race in mind for him as I’m sure he wants a trip and I’m hopeful for a really nice run for him and he’s nice and fresh.”
Seven Barrows rival Henderson sends out two runners for the race, including the hugely consistent On The Blind Side. And he said: “He’s had an amazing season. We’ve thrown the book at him from beginning to end - at one point we threw a second race at him a week after he’d had a really tough race at Kempton and he won purely because he battled.
“He ran a superb race at Aintree and he’s just fit and well and he’s been a star all year. I’ve promised him he’ll get a holiday this time!”
Henderson also sends out the 2018 winner Call Me Lord, who ran a fine race to finish fifth in a Grade One contest at Aintree last time out, and he added: “He’s won this before and I’m sad that two old friends are having to take each other on, but you have to at this time of year and it’s a race that suits both horses.
“It was a fantastic run at Aintree, he’s in good form, is better going right-handed and this trip is probably perfect - so it’s up to him really.”