Timeform preview the 1965 Chase at Ascot on Saturday...
"...in the shape of Cyrname, he faces a rival here with the potential to push him further than any other before..."
Timeform on Altior
The recent roll of honour for the 1965 Chase at Ascot may be an illustrious one, but it's fair to say Saturday's renewal has already eclipsed them all in terms of anticipation, with two of the sport's biggest names set to put their reputations on the line.
Reputations don't come much bigger than that put together by Altior, who hasn't put a foot wrong since embarking on a career over obstacles in October 2015. Indeed, his record over jumps now stands at 19 wins from as many starts (the first five over hurdles), the longest winning sequence in history by a jumper, beating by one the run of victories recorded by the champion staying hurdler Big Buck's earlier in the century.
Kept to two miles last season, Altior was utterly dominant in his two starts before the turn of the year, staying on strongly to beat the valiant Un de Sceaux by four lengths on his return in the Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown, before sauntering to an effortless success in the Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton, winning by 19 lengths without coming off the bridle.
In form terms, however, that was as good as it got for Altior during the last campaign, with his final three wins all coming courtesy of performances that didn't rate quite so highly on the Timeform scale.
None of them was completely without incident, either, with the nine-year-old never looking so vulnerable as when joined by Politologue and Sceau Royal at the penultimate fence of the Champion Chase at Cheltenham. The latter even nosed to the front after the last, but Altior soon rallied to regain the lead and forge clear on the run-in, ultimately winning by a length and three quarters from Politologue, despite not being anywhere near his best.
Altior may have still been feeling the effects of that effort when recording a third successive win in the Celebration Chase at Sandown on his final start in April, making all the running to beat old rival Sceau Royal by two and a half lengths but not impressive in doing so, producing his worst performance on ratings since the early stages of his novice career.
A tendency to jump left when in front - sometimes markedly so - also resurfaced on that occasion, a trait that had been even more severe when previously winning the Clarence House Chase at this venue (by seven lengths from Fox Norton) in January. It's certainly something worth keeping an eye on as Altior returns to Ascot on Saturday, though trainer Nicky Henderson wasn't unduly concerned when speaking after the Clarence House. 'It won't worry me going right handed again,' Henderson said. 'If he had another horse in front of him he would not have done it at all.'
That theory is likely to be put to the test in the 1965 Chase, with chief rival Cyrname expected to adopt his usual front-running tactics.
Cyrname was one of the breakthrough stars of the 2018/19 campaign and is currently the BHA's highest-rated steeplechaser in training, 1 lb ahead of Altior. By contrast, there was only going to be one recipient of the Timeform Horse of the Year, with Altior, who is rated 7 lb ahead of Cyrname, taking the title for the third season in succession.
There was no doubting the lasting impression made by Cyrname in two scintillating victories over this C&D, though, a 21-length demolition of nine rivals in a competitive handicap in January being followed by an even more striking 17-length rout of Waiting Patiently, Fox Norton, Politologue and company in the following month's Betfair Ascot Chase.
What was needed, of course, was for Cyrname and Altior to meet under conditions which would establish an undisputed champion, an event we were deprived of last season when the former was ruled out of the Celebration Chase due to the ground being faster than ideal.
The old saying goes that the best things are worth waiting for and Saturday's clash asks arguably an even bigger question of Altior than that Sandown heat would have done, with this being very much a home game for Cyrname, who clearly thrives under these conditions.
Admittedly, Altior is unbeaten in two starts of his own at Ascot - he also won here as a novice hurdler - but he can't afford to be giving away ground at his fences with a rival of Cyrname's calibre in opposition, while he also has stamina to prove now going beyond two and a quarter miles for the first time.
Saturday's contest is the first step towards realising the King George aspirations held by Altior's connections, and, while winning championship races at both two miles and three miles demands versatility that few very horses are capable of showing, the portents are good for Altior, who has often looked as if he will get further.
Indeed, the overwhelming feeling over the years has been that Altior is never stronger than at the finish of his races, with the replays of his four Cheltenham Festival wins well worth revisiting for those who disagree, not least the 2018 Champion Chase in which he put seven lengths between himself and the top-class Min from the last.
Altior may not have been quite so visually impressive in his final three starts of the 2018/19 campaign, but he was always well on top at the finish, while looking to hold a bit back for himself, and it is when taking on truly top-class opposition that he has produced his best ratings in the past, rising to the task with gusto on each occasion. And, in the shape of Cyrname, he faces a rival here with the potential to push him further than any other before.
Altior's jockey Nico de Boinville was certainly bullish when the prospect of a clash with Cyrname was brought up after the Celebration Chase. 'Racing needs to see the best against the best and this fellow is ready to step up in trip,' he said. 'Ascot, two and three quarter miles against Cyrname - bring it on!'
Those sentiments are likely to be echoed by all lovers of National Hunt racing, and, whatever the outcome, the attention that the dual has already received is fantastic for the sport. That won't be any consolation to the loser, of course, but Altior hasn't put his connections in that position for a long time and we don't expect that to change on Saturday.
Minimum Bet Guarantee
Betfair's 'minimum bet guarantee' on all races in the UK and Ireland means all customers are able to bet to win a minimum of £/€500. T&Cs apply.