It’s January 2021 and as is natural at the turn of the year, horse-racing followers are marking their calendars, each day a day closer to the week. The week of weeks. The Cheltenham Festival.
The pinnacle of National Hunt Racing will soon be upon us – almost certainly lacking the famous Cheltenham roar – but the light shined on the stars of the sport will not dimmer.
Sprinter Sacre: The Heart That Cherished Cheltenham
The Cheltenham Festival at its Jaw-Dropping Best
Few scenes hold greater anticipation in sport outright than the Cheltenham hill.
That Might Bite finish in March 2017 was an unforgettable classic. From powering clear to throwing the race away and somehow taking it right back. Commentator Richard Hoiles put it best: “Might Bite might just have snatched defeat and then victory from the jaws of both!” Magic.
You could not find more personality at the theatre if you tried.
The Resurgence of Sprinter Sacre
Racing will often portray the reality that one loss is not the end of the line. Even the greatest horses suffer their days of defeat.
Nicky Henderson trained gelding Sprinter Sacre had a monstrous racing career before the Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton Park on December 27, 2013. Heading into the race, he had won 14 of his 16 career starts, including two Cheltenham festival victories.
Sprinter was sent off the 2/9 favourite. He was very much expected to deliver the goods and record an 11th consecutive win. At around 14:35 that day, racing held its breath. Barry Geraghty, the regular rider of Sprinter Sacre, pulled up his mount after the seventh fence. Following the race, the horse was found to have an irregular heartbeat.
With time and patience afforded by masterful now-six-time champion trainer Nicky Henderson, Sprinter Sacre was able to return to the track over a year later. Setting off the 4/6 favourite, Sprinter finished three lengths behind Dodging Bullets in a performance that offered enough encouragement for connections to head to Cheltenham and go for the Queen Mother Champion Chase.
In that race, another draining day at the racetrack beckoned. Geraghty elected to pull up when beaten approaching the last. No such long-term issue was to be discovered and the horse would run again six weeks later, beaten six lengths into second by Special Tiara at Sandown Park.
Winning Tune Rediscovered
Following a break, later in 2015, Sprinter Sacre rediscovered the winning tune once again, winning the Schloer Chase by 14 lengths at Cheltenham on November 15 before adding the Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton, where it had all gone wrong two years previous, to his CV, in doing so beating the delightful Sire De Grugy.
The ‘Greatest Day in Racing’
On March 16, 2016, Sprinter Sacre returned to the greatest stage of them all, the Cheltenham festival. Bidding for a second Queen Mother Champion Chase, having failed to fire in the race 12 months earlier. This was to be a race no viewer could ever forget, filled with raw emotion.
A mere 5/1 shot going into the race, with Willie Mullins’ Un De Sceaux the fancied 4/6 favourite. At 5/1, Sprinter Sacre had only gone off at greater odds once in his entire career.
Sprinter Sacre and new stable jockey Nico de Boinville stalked Special Tiara and Un De Sceaux through the race. With the finish approaching, it was poetry in motion. Dispatching the flights as though they were not even there, though making a mistake as they approached three out. It would not prove costly as he quickly rectified the error and stormed to press the admirably consistent Un De Sceaux for first and promptly surged clear, also getting the beating of the ever-game Special Tiara.
It was certainly a defining moment. Racing fans cried a tear of joy and they are not afraid to admit it. Sprinter Sacre was back and with more heart beaming than ever before.
Trainer Nicky Henderson pinpointed the day ‘the greatest day in racing’ and it could not be argued.
The tireless contributions and patience afforded by Henderson’s yard and the vets deserve a lot of credit in applying a helping hand to the horse’s resurgence.
Sprinter concluded his career with another spectacular win over Un De Sceaux in the Celebration Chase at Sandown.
With an expected return in the Tingle Creek, Sprinter Sacre’s retirement was confirmed in November 2016.
Henderson said: “We are going to miss him. It has been a great journey. It has been an emotional time but we have loved every minute of it and all good things must come to an end.
“When you go to the sales and try to buy these beautiful horses, nine times out of 10 they are useless. They are far too pretty to be racehorses. He was the epitome of the horse which looks the part and moves the part. He hasn’t got a fantastic pedigree but it has worked.
An emotional Henderson added: “He is the most prepossessing animal you could ever see. He will be here today and is in staggeringly good form. That is the saddest thing.”
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