Newbury hosted a great card today, with the incredibly valuable Betfair Hurdle and the Denman Chase just two of the races to look forward to. However, it was the Game Spirit Chase that offered the most excitement, with Altior stepping into open company to complete his preparation for the 2017 Cheltenham Festival.

The field may have been just four runners, but it looked a more than a fair contest — his three rivals were Fox Norton, rated 167 and hugely progressive this season, Traffic Fluide, rated 162 and with a good record fresh, and Dodging Bullets, rated 154 and clearly not the horse he was previously, having won the Champion Chase in 2015.

The race was ran at a good pace, with Altior setting off in front but Traffic Fluide taking over fairly soon after with a couple of big leaps that sent him ahead of his more measured opponent. However, after the sixth fence Altior had regained the lead with some equally impressive jumping, and returning rider Nico de Boinville began to assert.

From four out Altior was simply breathtaking, accelerating away from his rivals and stringing together a series of electric jumps, showing exactly why connections opted for chasing despite the Champion Hurdle being there for the taking. His rivals simply couldn’t live with him, and in the end the winning distance was 13 lengths, with Nico having barely had to get to work.

Altior was following in the footsteps of Sprinter Sacre, who also ran in the Game Spirit in his novice season, and remarkably this was arguably a more impressive performance. Altior still has a long way to go before he can truly be measured against the great Sprinter Sacre, but at this stage it really isn’t unrealistic to be talking about them in the same category. Now a best price of 4/11 for the Arkle, he has to be the banker of this year’s festival.

Native River Strengthens Gold Cup Claims

Just over 30 minutes earlier, the wonderfully likeable Native River wrapped up his Cheltenham preparations with a commanding victory in the Grade 2 Denman Chase. With tough wins in the Hennessy and Welsh Grand National to his name already, this was very much a different style of race as he faced just two rivals. However, everything seems to come naturally to Native River over fences and this was further evidence of his talent.

It’s pretty easy to crab the form, with Bristol De Mai disappointing, leaving the 151-rated Le Mercurey as the biggest danger. In fact, it was Le Mercurey who traveled the best of the trio, looming up as a serious threat, however as soon as Aidan Coleman (standing in for the unwell Richard Johnson) got serious, Native River asserted to win going away.

He jumps, he stays and he has a deceptively good turn of foot. He really is the embryonic type for the Cheltenham Gold Cup, and it’s no surprise he’s been shortened slightly, now a general 4/1 shot with a couple firms holding out on 9/2 as I type this. Stablemate Thistlecrack may still be the one to beat, but we know he’s not untouchable and if one horse is going to push him out of his comfort zone it’s Native River.

Ballyandy Lands Serious Gamble in the Betfair Hurdle

The Betfair Hurdle has been dominated in recent years by novices, and there was no change this year as the finish was fought out between two novices in Ballyandy and Movewiththetimes. Rated 135 and 136 respectively, the duo both traveled menacingly well throughout the race, before locking horns in a good battle to the finish line.

It was the more experienced Ballyandy who came out on top. Having failed to enter the winners enclosure on his first three starts over hurdles, this was a good time to get off the mark with the winner taking home close to £90,000. This was his tenth race on the track, having excelled in bumpers last season, notably when landing the 2016 Champion Bumper, and that experience looked valuable when seeing off Movewiththetimes who was having just his fifth race.

Both horses will head to Cheltenham now and there will be plenty of options available to them. Wether they stick to handicaps or go the Supreme/Neptune route remains to be seen.