SUNDAY TIMES SPORT, 24 November 2019
As good as it gets. Cyrname and Altior coming off Ascot’s final turn with the world’s top rating and Altior’s 19 race unbeaten run up for grabs. It was the moment all sports always long for; the bold young contender daring the old champion to take him down.
Exactly a year ago, Cyrname was only seventh in a two-mile chase two races after his stablemate Politogue had won this one. Back at the track two months later over half a mile further and after finally easing off his headstrong tendencies to allow Paul Nicholls to train him properly, he blitzed home against a decent field and within a month had returned here to blaze a victory so massive that he was officially ranked at the very top of the tree.
But one good and one astonishing performance still count way, way short of what Altior brought to the table; unbeaten since April 2015 seven months before Cyrname first ran and finished fourth at Le Mans racecourse in his native France. Altior has long established himself as one of the greatest athletes in the history of the game and to watch him walk round the paddock yesterday made you proud to be in his company. There is that intelligent, elegant head, the finely tuned neck and that patch of grey at the top of his tail. It was his first run of the season, and his first ever over 2miles 5 furlongs but the Henderson camp reported his homework as brilliant as ever. Champions don’t go down without a fight.
Up ahead of him in the paddock, the challenger strutted with equal confidence. Cyrname is a slightly bigger, lighter bay than Altior but his preparation had been completed with a blistering gallop at Wincanton before which he ran away with his jockey Harry Cobden. With that in mind the 21-year old pilot trotted Cyrname most of the way to the start and was happy to set off in front in his quest to brute the champion.
The next five minutes 19.05 seconds were a connoisseur’s delight. Cobden and Cyrname attacking 17 Ascot fences with Nico de Boinville and Altior soaring behind them in that four- legged, two legged partnership we know so well. As the race wound up so too did the anticipation. The eye searched for the first signs of stress from horse or rider. Closing towards the final turn Cyrname still had two lengths advantage and those De Boinville wrists were beginning to push. Could this finally be the day when Altior’s great run ended?
It looked tough but with Altior we have seen this before. He is the champion who digs deep and he dug now. Straightening up he was closing and at the second last he was only a length off Cyrname. He jumped well but not as strong or quick as the contender. Coming to the last Cyrname was three lengths clear. Even at 21 ,Harry Cobden is already into his sixth riding season and if last year’s broken neck ever impinges on his consciousness it certainly didn’t show as he sent Cyrname hard and in and over the last with greatness in his grasp.
At this stage Altior could have faded into distant retreat but to his eternal credit he stuck on to be only two and a half lengths adrift at the post and refute suggestions that it was his stamina that betrayed him. He was so tired that De Boinville dismounted him on the track and trainer Henderson sensibly reserved judgement as to whether he will continue with Kempton’s three mile King George VI Chase as Altior’s target, confining himself to the tribute that the victor “was a fitter and better horse on the day.”
On an afternoon of delights, we also found ourselves a new Gold Cup favourite when Lostintranslation outgunned course specialist Bristol De Mai up at Haydock. It was a fine performance which saw the seven-year old quoted as 7/2 favourite for Cheltenham next March with the earlier peak of the King George on Boxing Day where Cyrname and maybe even Altior will lie in wait.
“We’re dreaming of the Gold Cup now,” said Robbie Power afterwards. “He was a very good novice last season, but we didn’t know how he’d fare in the big boys’ league. He’s proven how good he is, roll on the King George!”
That all three stars should turn out together at Kempton just four weeks on Thursday might be too much to ask, but who cares after what happened yesterday? For, heaven help me, I rode and got beaten a neck in the very first chase run at Ascot 55 years ago next April. Since then there have been many great moments over fences with legends liked Crisp, Desert Orchid and Kauto Star. But in all that time there has been nothing better than when Cyrname and Altior swung into the straight together with the title of world’s best chaser on the line.
Yes – as good as it gets.