A little over a year ago this date had jumps racing fans purring with giddy anticipation, writes James Toney at Cheltenham.
It was billed as a decisive head-to-head, with no quarter asked or given, in which only one would emerge triumphant.
That date is now but Altior and Douvan – named like two swaggering characters from an Alexandre Dumas novel – hardly line up at the peak of their swashbuckling powers.
Altior, a winner of all 12 his races over jumps, has long been odds-on to lift the two-mile championship crown that has seemed his destiny since winning the Supreme Novices’ here two years ago.
Then came the bombshell announcement that the two-time Festival winner was lame and required a poultice to draw pus from a foot, sparking a dramatic drift in the betting.
Trainer Nicky Henderson – seeking another championship prize after Buveur D’Air’s Champion Hurdle win on Tuesday – insists he now has ‘no concerns’ and these type of injuries are common place with horses. However, it’s enough to make you jittery.
“He’s fine and 100 per cent sound,” said Henderson, when asked about his star charge.
“It won’t impact on his performance in any way whatsoever, unless it goes backwards again. He’s fit and hasn’t missed any work.
“The conditions are definitely not a positive because we’ve always thought he’s a better horse on better ground.
“That said, he has won the last two Game Spirits on very soft ground at a time when we had massive concerns and took him to Newbury only because he had to have a run.”
And then there is Douvan, who has hokey-cokeyed in and out of this race in recent days – his connections taking indecision to new levels and hardly inspiring bullish confidence, even among a legion of fans who think he can do no wrong.
Douvan matches his rival’s profile, with Festival wins in the Supreme Novices’ and Arkle. But he hasn’t run since last year’s distant seventh – his only chasing defeat – in this same race, when he was sent off as odds-on favourite and spectacularly imploded under the glare of anticipation.
However, Ruby Walsh, fresh from two wins on the Festival’s opening day, has still chosen to ride him over Min, who won impressively last time and looks to be a more credible challenger to Henderson’s charge.
“Is he at his very best? We don’t know because we haven’t run him this year. I think he’s in good form at home. I like the way he looks, there’s plenty of bounce and spark about him,” said Walsh.
“I don’t think Min has as much chance of beating Altior but Douvan at his very best certainly could.
“I always thought he was a talented horse. It would be great if he could bounce out here and go and beat Altior.”
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However, this is far from a two-horse race, with Paul Nicholls’s Politologue – racing in the colours that Azertyuiop carried to victory in this race 13 years ago – capable of playing more than just a supporting role.
Altior destroyed the grey when the clashed at Newbury but he has otherwise graduated from his novice chase season well, landing his first Grade 1, the Tingle Creek Chase, at Sandown in December.
There are no question marks his preparation and the soft ground will suit too for a tough and talented horse who looks a faultless jumper.
“The one thing about the Champion Chase is that they will go flat out and that will suit him much better and hopefully that will help us close the gap,” said ten-time Champion Trainer Nicholls.
“Everything has gone well in preparation, he’s a really progressive horse and I’m confident he’ll give a good account of himself.”