Ahead of their engagements in the Queen Mother Champion Chase and Cheltenham Gold Cup respectively, the Saturday race card at Newbury featured the seasonal debuts of Altior and Native River and both horses did not disappoint their connections or the watching public.
The former had not raced since undergoing an early season wind operation while the latter last contested the 2017 Gold Cup in which he finished a creditable third. However, their victories at the weekend will ensure that they will arrive the Festival in good form, race-fit and relatively fresh animals.
In ground described as soft accompanied by fairly miserable weather, Altior faced two rivals in the 2m Betfair Exchange Chase. With Altior not racing since winning the Celebration Chase back in April, jockey Nico de Boinville was content to play a waiting game on Saturday as Sam Twiston-Davies set the early pace on Politologue.
One of Altiors opponent who was unbeaten in three starts this season including Kempton’s Desert Orchid Chase and the Tingle Creek at Sandown.
As the horses neared the final two fences, Twiston-Davies still led as he hoped to test the fitness of the favourite and for a brief moment, Altior appeared to be struggling. Those doubts were soon cast aside as Politologue was overtaken after jumping the final fence with Altior seemingly cruising to a comfortable victory.
Shortly afterwards, Altior was shortened to odds-on favourite for the 2018 Champion Chase, with trainer Nicky Henderson claiming that his gelding would improve for that race.
It is difficult to imagine another horse offering a serious challenge to Altior in that race other than the expected Irish raider Min who was a recent impressive winner at Leopardstown.
Denman Chase Hunt
Earlier in the afternoon, three horses also competed in the 3m Denman Chase with the Colin Tizzard trained Native River facing the versatile Cloudy Dream and 2017 Gold Cup fifth-placed horse Saphir Du Rheu with the latter not racing since unseating in the Grand National.
Unlike Altior, Native River prefers softer conditions and jockey Richard Johnson allowed the horse to set a steady gallop in the early stages.
With Native River’s stamina already proven after winning both the Hennessy Gold Cup and Welsh Grand National last season, Johnson gradually increased the tempo along the back straight and into the home turn. Approaching the final fences, Native River extended his lead and eventually finished the race in impressive style.
Although it could be argued that runner-up Cloudy Dream may not be the most genuine of horses having finished second on too many occasions. The Northern raider traveled well throughout the race but appeared to lack the necessary battling qualities when asked to challenge Native River.
Yet the bookmakers reacted to Native River’s effort by shortening the gelding to second favourite behind Might Bite for the Gold Cup. The Tizzard horse would prefer soft ground to Spring conditions, but he will be difficult to beat in what is emerging as an open-looking contest at the Festival.
Winners at Newbury
Among the other winners at Newbury, Kalashnikov earned quotes of approximately 10/1 for the Supreme Novices Hurdle after claiming victory in the valuable Betfair Hurdle for trainer Amy Murphy.
The 5-year-old gelding has been beaten just once in five hurdle races but will benefit from running in a multi-runner handicap ahead of this test at Cheltenham. Whether the horse is capable of overcoming probable Irish raider Getabird is another question.
Another horse to catch the eye at Newbury was Rockpoint who reared at the start of the 2m novices hurdle and was nearly left behind, before finishing second. The consistent 5-year-old gelding has yet to win a national hunt race but could be worth following in lower grade races.
Meanwhile over at Warwick, an impressive jumping display ensured that Saint Calvados easily won the 2m Kingmaker Novices Chase. The Harry Whittington trained horse is now unbeaten in three races over fences and his economic style of tackling fences could pose problems for ante-post favourite Footpad in the Arkle.
There was also a horse to note in Ireland where Balliniska Band easily won the Flat race at Naas without ever being troubled by his rivals. It was a first-ever racecourse appearance by the 4-year-old gelding and he could be worth watching in his next outing, which could be the Champion Bumper at Cheltenham.