If handicap figures are unlikely to ever reflect Altior’s true merit then a record-equalling 18th win in a row over obstacles at Cheltenham on Wednesday indicate he is a rare sporting champion.
The Nicky Henderson-trained star successfully defended the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase crown at cramped odds of 4-11 that at one point looked all but asphyxiating.
Pressed on either side by Politologue and Secau Royal on the run to the last, only abundant evidence from a dozen previous unbeaten runs over fences steadied the nerves of Altior’s legions of fans.
Sceau Royal briefly led after the last and Altior duly reacted as if affronted. Having looked in real trouble, English racing’s poster-boy performer shrugged one rival, then Politologue’s late lunge, and by the line was somehow in complete control again.
That the final winning margin was less than two lengths will do nothing for his official rating. However the connection between that and sharing 18 jumping wins in a row with the former Stayers Hurdle champion Big Buck’s can’t be coincidence.
The single greatest Champion Chase performances of modern times came from Master Minded in 2008 and Sprinter Sacre five years later.
They were startling displays, both visually and in terms of getting handicap calculators into a spin such were the wide-margins of victory. And it’s probably no coincidence either that neither horse ever managed to replicate them.
They were purist once-offs that linger in the memory purely because of how spectacular they were.
Altior doesn’t do spectacular. He does enough to win. It isn’t flash a la Sprinter Sacre, or a flat star like Frankel who showed everything he had. Comparisons with the modern era’s other outstanding flat champion, Sea The Stars, a horse who always won within himself, are much more valid.
It is an ability to consistently respond to whatever challenge is thrown at him, rather than one spectacular performance, which distinguishes Altior. And if that doesn’t cut it in strict ratings terms then statistics have rarely ever been a guide to that great indefinable element of competitive spirit.
Michael Kinane believed Sea The Stars needed another outstanding champion, maybe even Frankel, to pull out the true depth of ability lurking within. Impregnable at two miles the demand will now be for Altior to find new challenges over longer trips.
The three-mile King George VI Chase next Christmas has already been pencilled in one such challenge. Another former great champion jockey, Tony McCoy, perhaps recognising another arch competitor more renowned for substance than style believe that will be no problem.
“He’s the best I’ve seen since Kauto Star. I think he could win over any trip,” the Irishman said in his TV punditry role on ITV. “He has what champion has – he’ll get it done in the end.”
Strict handicap requirements can’t measure that capacity. It has earned Altior a notable place in public affections and if the consequence is some seriously saccharine commentary at least it is coming from a sweet place.
Nicky Henderson has been known to get teary over his horses but his legendary Cheltenham status got confirmed again with a sixth Champion Chase, equalling the haul of Arkle’s trainer, Tom Dreaper.
“It’s like going back to the Sprinter Sacre days,” he said. “How lucky we are, to retire one and then find another. He’s some star.”
Altior’s jockey Nico De Boinville was on board Sprinter Sacre for his second Champion Chase in 2016 but admitted: “I don’t think I rode Sprinter at his peak. But I am riding Altior at his peak and he’s the best I’ve ridden.
“I’m not going to take away from past champions. Who can forget Master Minded coming up that hill. But what a horse Altior is. We’re lucky to be in an age where he is here.”
De Boinville, who also partnered the Henderson trained William Henry to a dramatic Coral Cup defeat of Wicklow Brave, added: “We went half a length down after the last but he found this extra gear. I don’t know where it comes from. I think he doesn’t know how to lose at the moment.”
Trying to turn that rare quality into a statistic is surely not worth the trouble.