If Sandown’s end-of-season finale two years ago was about A P McCoy and 12 months ago about his successor, Richard Johnson, yesterday it was all about trainer Nicky Henderson, who delivered the coup de grace for Paul Nicholls’s slender hopes of an 11th trainers’ title when Altior romped home in the Bet365 Celebration Chase.
The seven-year-old chaser has been a flag-bearer for Seven Barrows this season and, if he had not been as impressive as we had hoped when winning the Arkle at Cheltenham, in beating the Champion Chaser Special Tiara by eight lengths on Saturday, he was back to his imperious self and looked the genuine heir to Sprinter Sacre.
He travelled so easily in second that Special Tiara was unable to shake him off as he did to the opposition at Cheltenham and this time the Champion Chaser was merely reduced to lead horse. “He was beaten by an exceptional horse,” conceded his trainer Henry de Bromhead.
“It was effortless from the last,” said winning jockey Nico de Boinville. “The way he picks up it makes the life of a jockey very easy. His star shines very brightly.”
Henderson added: “We’ve always known he was very special. Even when he ran in a bumper at Market Rasen we thought he was very good but it’s got to happen. Plenty of good horses have won bumpers and don’t live up to the dream. But the dream is still alive with him.
“Ironically, we’ve said goodbye to Sprinter this season but Altior’s still got a long way to go. He’s hasn’t quite taken us down the emotional route that Sprinter has yet.”
Altior apart, given that Henderson’s yard houses Buveur D’Air, Top Notch, Might Bite and yesterday’s first time out French import winner for the stable, Call Me Lord, in the juvenile handicap while Nicholls, who despite his best year numerically, appears to lack a few headline acts, one imagines Henderson might hang on to the title for the next couple of seasons.
“It’s been a fantastic year,” said Henderson. “It’s been a long winter of dedication by the staff and we’ve tried to have a bit of fun along the way.
“I’m as up for it as I’ve ever been. The team and the owners are a good old mob and there’ll be a good old party.”
Apart from his fourth title – 31 years after his first which is remarkable in any sport – Henderson also went home with a third winner in L’Ami Serge, but it took a brilliant ride from Sean Bowen on his father, Peter Bowen’s 40-1 outsider Henllan Harri, to stop Henderson claiming the Bet365 Gold Cup, too.
With eight horses covered by two lengths at the last, the handicapper would probably have been as pleased about this year’s race as anyone. Bowen, who won the race on Just A Par two years ago, had got Henllan Harri into a terrific rhythm in front and was taking a length out of the field at each obstacle down the back.
In the end, in a desperate finish, he hung on by a head and neck from Henderson’s Vyta Du Roc and Theatre Guide.
“It’s the biggest prize I’ve won for dad,” said Bowen. “It’s a different feeling. I was thinking what a muppet he was for running the horse from 4lbs out of the handicap – but he was right again!”
His father explained: “He loves that ground and I wasn’t sure he’d stay but he’s related to Silver Birch and he improved for the trip. He might be a National horse one day.”
Johnson, who was crowned Champion jockey for the second time before racing, rode his 187th but possibly the most emotional winner of his season when Menorah won the bet365 Oaksey Chase for the fourth year in succession.
The 12-year-old was retired on the spot by tearful owners Grahame Whateley and will spend it with Johnson on his Herefordshire farm.
In Ireland, Willie Mullins, who had trailed Gordon Elliott all season, retained his trainers’ title despite having begun the week trailing by €400,000 at the start of Punchestown on Tuesday. He finally got his nose in front for the first time on Friday and increased it yesterday to give him a 10th Championship.