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Altior may get cheekpieces to sharpen him up at Cheltenham Festival

Altior could be fitted with headgear for the first time when he returns to the Cheltenham Festival next month, seeking to recover his crown in the Queen Mother Champion Chase. Nicky Henderson said on Thursday there is a real possibility of cheekpieces being fitted to the 11-year-old to help his concentration after a disappointing defeat at Kempton’s Christmas meeting.

When the subject was raised the questioner evidently expected Henderson to take umbrage at the suggestion that such a great horse might now need a bit of help in his races. But the trainer acknowledged he was thinking along similar lines and said: “No, you needn’t hide behind that sofa.

“It is something we have discussed. We have eliminated the Ryanair [as a potential target], so we might now try to sharpen him up a little bit over two miles.

“He raced very lazily, he lacked his normal sharpness and accuracy at Kempton over Christmas. He’s great, now. He couldn’t be better. I’m very, very happy. His whole demeanour is in a better place than it has been this year.

“There’s Chacun Pour Soi to beat and plenty of others, I know. But he’s still there and he’ll be sharper this time. It will be a battle but I do think you’ll see a much sharper Altior on the day.”

Altior is unbeaten in four previous visits to the Festival but missed last year’s event through lameness. He is available at 7-1 for the Champion Chase in three weeks’ time.

Henderson appeared unnerved by the way challengers have emerged for the Arkle Trophy, though his Shishkin remains the odds-on favourite. “It’s amazing how this race has gone from everybody saying it was going to be boring, and Willie [Mullins] has come along with the unpronounceable one [Energumene] and Allmankind was impressive again at Warwick. Now there’s a real fight on and people are seeing it as one of the headline clashes of the week.

“We’ve got a lot of very good chances. We thought Shishkin was a pretty good banker to go in with last year and Altior was always in that situation, Sprinter Sacre was always in that situation. You always had one that you could hope you could hang your hat on.

“It’s going to be tougher than that. We haven’t got an out and out … Three weeks ago, Shishkin was the banker. Now he’s got a real battle on his hands. It’s going to be mighty competitive and I hate to think what the score will be at the end of the day but I hope we’re on the card anyway.

“We’ve had an up and down season, it hasn’t been all rocking and rolling, I have to admit. We’ve had issues with the general wellbeing of the squad. Christmas-time wasn’t great. Butthey’re pretty well coming into shape. If you were to put it back another week, I wouldn’t object but we’ll be all right.”

Epatante, the reigning champion hurdler, was another Henderson star to be beaten at Christmas, since when her back has received some treatment. “It was a little bit more than just physio. We’ve been keeping quite a close eye on it. She’s always had quite a rigid back. I don’t know, maybe it wasn’t that. We were trying to find reasons. She was uncomfortable at Kempton but take nothing away from the winner, maybe she just got beat by a better horse on the day.

“We have a few things we’ve ironed out. We’re back in the right place now.”

Champ, Henderson’s main Gold Cup contender, is reported well in the wake of his encouraging run at Newbury on Sunday, while Santini is also expected to take his chance in the race.

Several Henderson horses have multiple entries at the Festival but he indicated Fusil Raffles is most likely to go for the Marsh, while Dame De Compagnie is being aimed at the Mares Hurdle. Buzz is more likely to step up in distance for the Coral Cup than to take his chance in the Champion Hurdle, while Bothwell Bridge could come into the Albert Bartlett if he copes well with three miles in a prep-race on Sunday.

Henderson also spoke encouragingly about Mister Fisher, a Ryanair contender, and Champagne Platinum, who may sport cheekpieces in the Pertemps Final.

Meanwhile, it was confirmed the Grand National will be run on its scheduled date, 10 April. There had been suggestions it might be delayed by up to a week to coincide with the possible reopening of betting shops as Covid restrictions are eased, but Jockey Club Racecourses have decided that is not a “solid enough” reason to move such a major fixture.

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