The esteemed Irish raider Min went into the 2016 Cheltenham Festival as the red-hot favourite to land the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle after making a blistering start to his career. He was expected to give trainer Willie Mullins a fourth consecutive win in the Festival’s famous curtain raiser, but it was not to be. On that day he came up against a budding superstar in Altior, who proved too strong in a fascinating duel and romped to victory. Mullins held his hands up and hailed Altior as a worthy winner, while the horse’s trainer, Nicky Henderson, could barely contain his glee.
Henderson knew he had another star two-miler in the mould of Sprinting Sacre on his hands. Altior has since delivered on his promise and gone on to enjoy vast fame and fortune. He remains unbeaten since winning his jumps debut at Chepstow in 2015, and he racked up his 12th consecutive victory when he landed the Grade 2 Betfair Exchange Chase at Newbury last month. Ever since his famous victory over Min, Altior has been the odds-on favourite in all of his races, and he has never let the punters down.
He cemented his status as a Cheltenham legend by blitzing the field to win the Arkle Challenge Trophy at last year’s Festival. Now the eight-year-old bay gelding is bidding for a famous hat-trick by landing the biggest two-mile prize of the lot: The Queen Mother Champion Chase. It is the richest and most prestigious minimum-distance chase in the National Hunt calendar and previous winners include legends like Sprinting Sacre and Master Minded. Altior can be mentioned in the same breath as them if he delivers on Wednesday. The field is deep and studded with talent, but one particular horse stands in his way.
Min’s career trajectory since that defeat at the hands of Altior has not been quite as impressive as his rival’s, but he has become a Grade 1 winner. He landed the Racing Post Novice Chase on Boxing Day 2016, and then took a year out. His return to action this season was successful, as he won a chase at Gowran Park. He was then second to Simply Ned in the Grade 1 Paddy’s Rewards Club Chase at Leopardstown in December, and followed it up with an impressive victory in the Grade 2 Coral Dublin Chase last month. He appears to be on a strong upward curve and he could finally avenge that 2016 defeat when these chasers meet again at Cheltenham.
A look at the Sporting Index spread betting lines shows that Altior is the favourite to land the Champion Chase, and Min is second in the list. Min’s stablemate Douvan is a real wildcard. He is the third favourite, priced around the 9/2 mark with the fixed-odds bookmakers, and he was the standout chaser of last season. He followed a similar career arc to Altior, winning the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle in 2015 and then going on to extend his winning run to 13 in a row. But Douvan flopped at Cheltenham last year and finished seventh in the Champion Chase after suffering a pelvic injury. Punters lumping on Altior can only hope he does not suffer a similar fate. Douvan, who was found lame after the defeat, has not seen competitive action since and Mullins fears he may have lost his star quality, although he has put him forward for the Champion Chase once more regardless. Ruby Walsh has a big decision on his hands, whether to ride Douvan or Min, but you would expect him to opt for the latter, who has had three runs this year.
Amid Douvan’s lack of fitness and form, Min stands out as the one horse that can stop Altior joining the list of all-time greats by winning the Queen Mother Champion Chase. It could prove to be the race of the Festival because Min jumps beautifully and has the pace to trouble his old rival, but right now you have to say the advantage lies with Altior. The eight-year-old has not put a foot wrong over the last few years and always finds a way to win. He landed a simple victory at Newbury last time out and Henderson declared his star chaser to be perfectly fit and raring to go ahead of the Festival, which is a terrifying prospect for his opponents.
Martin Green is an experienced horse racing correspondent and has been covering the Cheltenham Festival for many years.