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Sprinter Sacre: The Timeform View

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Three-time Cheltenham Festival winner Sprinter Sacre has been retired at the age of ten. We reflect on the achievements of Nicky Henderson's star with his final essay from the 2015/16 edition of Chasers & Hurdlers.

It was the season when Sprinter Sacre’s status in the annals of steeplechasing finally became assured. In a story that at times seemed inconceivable, or at the very least wildly improbable, he regained the Queen Mother Champion Chase, three years after running up a stunning sequence of wins which led to comparisons being made with some of the best steeplechasers of all time, including the greatest of them all, Arkle. Sprinter Sacre’s aura faded in a heartbeat - literally - in December 2013 when he was pulled up in the Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton, and afterwards diagnosed with a lone atrial fibrillation. Sprinter Sacre’s condition was said to be similar to that which affected the top staying chaser Denman before the 2008/9 season. Denman had won the Cheltenham Gold Cup from Kauto Star a few months earlier and the fact that he recovered to put up further top-class performances - winning a second Hennessy under top weight and coming second in three more Gold Cups - provided hope for Sprinter Sacre’s future. He was, though, in the wilderness for the next twelve months before making his comeback in mid-January 2015, finishing second to the Tingle Creek winner Dodging Bullets in the Clarence House at Ascot. However, when Sprinter Sacre was pulled up behind the same horse, after finding nothing, in the Queen Mother Champion Chase, it sadly appeared that he might be finished as a top-class racehorse. His only other run that season - six lengths second to the Queen Mother Champion Chase third Special Tiara in the Celebration Chase at Sandown - offered a glimmer of hope, but Chasers & Hurdlers concluded that `few would want to bet on his regaining the glory of those imperious days [of 2012/13]’.

As with Kauto Star before his Lazarus-like renaissance in 2011/12, there was a feeling that Sprinter Sacre might be retired after he was pulled up in the Queen Mother Champion Chase. Like Kauto Star, who was pulled up in the Punchestown Gold Cup on his final start of the 2010/11 campaign, Sprinter Sacre had slipped right down the rankings, rated 163, 29 lb below the Timeform rating he had at the end of the 2012/13 campaign in which he was unbeaten in the Tingle Creek (won by fifteen lengths), the Victor Chandler/Clarence House (strolled home by fourteen), the Queen Mother Champion Chase (by nineteen), the Melling Chase at Aintree (easily from Cue Card) and the Champion Chase at Punchestown, the last-named victory extending an unbeaten record over fences to ten. Sprinter Sacre’s Timeform rating of 192p shaded that achieved by Kauto Star and is the highest recorded in the Chasers & Hurdlers era. Here surely was a horse who, at that time, had everything needed to become one of the most popular jumpers of all time.

Mill House and Pendil are supremely popular steeplechasing stars from other eras who have featured in remarkable comebacks. The 1963 Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Mill House, hailed at the time as `the new Golden Miller’, was beaten by Arkle in the next two Gold Cups and broke down while being prepared for his fourth tilt at the race in 1966. Connections got him back twelve months later, and he was three lengths in front and moving well when suffering a disastrous fall at the seventeenth in the Gold Cup. Mill House did, though, go on to an inspiring victory under 11-11 in the same season’s Whitbread Gold Cup, running the opposition into the ground to cement his place in the affections of the racing public. John Lawrence (before he had succeeded to the Oaksey peerage) described him that day as `bounding down the long back straight, flicking fence after fence behind him … seeming, more than ever, the spirit of steeplechasing incarnate … I have met no-one - not even witnesses of Brown Jack’s final victory at Royal Ascot - who claims to remember a reception comparable with that which awaited Mill House … in the tumultuous roar that welcomed him, four years of doubt, defeat and pain were gloriously swept away.’ Pendil was the best chaser in Britain in his heyday in the early-’seventies. Two miles and three miles came alike to him and he was consistency itself, losing only twice in his first twenty races over fences (twice winning the King George). Pendil broke down in the Yellow Pages Pattern Chase as a ten-year-old but won three times when making a brief return to racing two years later, showing form which led to his being fancied to go well in the Cheltenham Gold Cup (a race in which he was beaten a short head in 1973) until a fall on the road finally ended his racing career.

Crimson Embers won the 1982 and 1986 editions of the Stayers’ Hurdle, finishing second, fourth and fifth in the three runnings in between, and there were six years between Earthmover’s two victories in the Foxhunter Chase (he paid his way as a smart handicap chaser for most of the years in between before being returned to hunter chasing the year before his second Foxhunter win). Sprinter Sacre was on the sidelines when the 2014 Queen Mother Champion Chase was run and, as already stated, failed to complete the course in 2015. He set out on the comeback trail in the latest season in the Shloer Chase (registered as the Cheltenham Chase) at Cheltenham’s Open meeting in November and a fourteen-length win over Somersby rekindled dreams that Sprinter Sacre’s career might, after all, be entering a new glorious era. Sprinter Sacre received weight from four of his five rivals in the Shloer, favoured by the conditions because he had not won in the previous season. There had even been some talk beforehand that the race might turn out to be Sprinter Sacre’s swansong if he failed to run well but he jumped with aplomb and travelled with plenty of exuberance, looking much more his old self than he had in any of his three races the previous season. Sprinter Sacre took the lead four out, drew clear at the next and kept on well in the home straight, showing form that was at least on a par with that which Dodging Bullets had shown when winning the Queen Mother Champion Chase. Sprinter Sacre was given a Festival type reception by the Cheltenham crowd as he returned to the winner’s enclosure, with the newly-opened upper walkway, overlooking the paddock, filling up as he was led in. `The last couple of years haven’t been easy for him or us,’ said trainer Nicky Henderson. `I know everyone was going to say we’ve heard all this before, but I really did feel he was a lot different to last year, and he looks so well. He was back as if he was king. We are not all the way there, but we are going in the right direction.’

The Shloer Chase provided something of a flashback to the old Sprinter Sacre, and the prospect of a meeting with the exciting Arkle winner Un de Sceaux in the Tingle Creek at Sandown became a mouth-watering prospect although, in the end, that clash had to wait until the Queen Mother Champion Chase. Sprinter Sacre wasn’t entered for the Tingle Creek and was seen next in the williamhill.com Desert Orchid Chase - the race in which he suffered his original heart problems - at Kempton’s Christmas meeting. His main rival there was Sire de Grugy who, in the absence of Sprinter Sacre and late defector Un de Sceaux, had won the Tingle Creek in a close finish with Special Tiara. The sound-jumping Sprinter Sacre wasn’t in quite the same form as he had been in the Shloer but he still followed up that reappearance win and beat Sire de Grugy, who did not help his own cause when fluffing the last, by three quarters of a length, with Vibrato Valtat a further three and three quarter lengths back in third, and Somersby ten lengths back in fourth. Sprinter Sacre came under pressure after the second last and had to be ridden out after heading Sire de Grugy early on the run-in. Sprinter Sacre didn’t have another race before the Betway Queen Mother Champion Chase where he came up against one of the meeting’s Willie Mullins-trained `bankers’ in the previous year’s Arkle winner Un de Sceaux, winner of all fourteen of his completed starts (he had fallen twice over fences), the latest of his victories coming in the Clarence House Chase at Ascot in January on his first trip to Britain since winning the Arkle, resulting in a ready victory over Sire de Grugy. Un de Sceaux was all the rage at Cheltenham, sent off at 6/4-on in a field that included the last three winners of the race, Sprinter Sacre, Sire de Grugy and Dodging Bullets, as well as the reliable Felix Yonger (the Mullins second string), Special Tiara, God’s Own (second to Un de Sceaux in the Arkle twelve months earlier) and the durable Somersby who was running at the Cheltenham Festival for the eighth time and was making his fifth appearance in the Queen Mother Champion Chase in which he had finished second in the two previous runnings (Go Ballistic made eight appearances at the Cheltenham Festival, including five in the Gold Cup in which he finished second at 66/1 in 1999 - he was also second in a consolation `Gold Cup’ run at Sandown in 2001, the year that the foot and mouth outbreak caused the cancellation of Cheltenham).

There were ten runners in all in the latest Queen Mother Champion Chase which was run at a fast pace from the outset, with trailblazing Special Tiara chased by Un de Sceaux, and Sprinter Sacre racing in third for much of the way and producing some spectacular leaps, although he was a little untidy at the third last as he began to close. Un de Sceaux, who had just taken over in front from Special Tiara, travelling strongly, momentarily seemed in control before Sprinter Sacre ranged alongside on the downhill section approaching the home turn. Sprinter Sacre brushed aside Un de Sceaux in extraordinarily authoritative fashion, sweeping to the front rounding the final bend and soon stretching into a commanding lead. A good jump at the second last was followed by a slight mistake at the last which barely checked Sprinter Sacre who held an eight-length advantage halfway up the run-in before tiring a little on the steep climb and winning by three and a half lengths and a nose from Un de Sceaux and the keeping-on Special Tiara, with a further five lengths and the same back to fourth-placed God’s Own and fifth-placed Somersby. Dodging Bullets managed only seventh, never looking like repeating his victory of the year before, and eighth-placed Sire de Grugy was never in the hunt. Sprinter Sacre’s victory was gained with much of the dash that had characterised the great victories when he was in his pomp but, strictly on form, it was a very good rather than a vintage Queen Mother Champion Chase, the proximity of those immediately behind the first three limiting the view that could be taken, though had Sprinter Sacre been able to show the same form it would still have seen him run out a decisive winner of the two editions of the race won by Sire de Grugy and Dodging Bullets.

`For two golden years, he was unbeatable and I’m not going to say he is still the same horse, but maybe he had to be almost as good as ever to do that,’ said Nicky Henderson afterwards. `When you see him in the paddock today, compared to last year, it is like two different animals.’ Sprinter Sacre’s jockey Nico de Boinville, whom not many knew had had to cope with the death of his mother in the build-up to the Festival, also won the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle for Seven Barrows on Altior, adding to his Festival win on Coneygree for the Bradstocks in the Gold Cup twelve months earlier. `I’m lost for words, I thought I’d used every superlative after winning on Coneygree, but this is unbelievable,’ de Boinville said. `It is very hard to gauge him unless he is on the track, but he has looked fantastic in his coat and seemed to have his presence back. He’s also got that fantastic top line again, which he seemed to lose last year. He has taken out Un de Sceaux in a few strides today.’ From the point when Sprinter Sacre began to open up a lead and, especially after he had safely cleared the final fence, the noise from the grandstands often drowned out the course commentator. The reception Sprinter Sacre received afterwards matched any seen at the Festival in recent times and was truly one to savour. Sprinter Sacre was champion again after a stirring triumph which made him the third horse to regain the Champion Chase title, following Royal Relief and Moscow Flyer, though there was a year-longer gap between Sprinter Sacre’s two victories.

There was a suggestion that Un de Sceaux and Special Tiara might have cut each other’s throats in the Queen Mother Champion Chase by setting such a fast gallop, though Un de Sceaux’s trainer said he was `a horse that gives everything in his races, so there was nothing more Ruby [Walsh] could do.’ Mullins said he would have liked more rain as he believes Un de Sceaux `might want softer ground - that’s all I can think of.’ The going was good, as it had been at Cheltenham, when Sprinter Sacre and Un de Sceaux met again in the bet365 Celebration Chase at Sandown’s Finale meeting at the end of April. Dodging Bullets and Sire de Grugy were in the line-up again in a genuine Grade 1 field for the Celebration’s third running as Britain’s fourth open Grade 1 championship event for the two-mile chasers. Sprinter Sacre beat Un de Sceaux a lot further than he had at Cheltenham, making it four wins from four starts with his best performance of the season. A bad mistake when he was still moving well at the third last effectively sealed Un de Sceaux’s fate and Sprinter Sacre beat him most impressively by fifteen lengths, staying on so strongly in the home straight that he would still have won convincingly if Un de Sceaux had put in a clean round of jumping. The patiently-ridden Dodging Bullets came third, a length behind Un de Sceaux and flattered by his proximity, and Sire de Grugy finished fourth after helping to force the strong pace in the middle of the race. Almost unnoticed in the euphoria of victory, the stewards inquired into the use of the whip by Nico de Boinville on Sprinter Sacre and suspended him for two days for continuing to strike Sprinter Sacre when he was clearly winning.

Sprinter Sacre’s victory was one of the highlights of a memorable day, his reception possibly matched for its warmth only by that afforded to Menorah for his third win in the Oaksey Chase and to Menorah’s jockey Richard Johnson when receiving the trophy for the jockeys’ championship from twenty-times champion Sir Anthony McCoy. The possibility of Sprinter Sacre facing the exceptional prospect Douvan in the next season is one that will excite all followers of steeplechasing. Sprinter Sacre is rising eleven and plenty of water will have gone under the bridge by the time he meets Douvan in the Queen Mother Champion Chase, if indeed the pair are set on that course (Douvan’s connections were said to be considering aiming him at the Cheltenham Gold Cup, though no final decision had been reached on his programme at the time of writing). Sprinter Sacre may not be quite the same horse as when he won his first Queen Mother Champion Chase, but he remains a tip-top chaser who is more than a match for the best of the established two-milers around at the moment. For all that, however, he might find the younger Douvan a little too hot to handle if the pair do meet in the next season.

The rangy Sprinter Sacre, a commanding individual, was foaled in 2006 and is one of the `S’ generation of AQPS horses (Autre Que Pur-Sang, or other than thoroughbred) who were the first to be registered as `AQ’ (covering horses previously labelled selle francais or anglo-arab) in the new AQPS stud book which was created in 2005. The non-thoroughbred element in the pedigrees of horses formerly referred to as selle francais or anglo-arab is now many generations back and the terms no longer exist officially. The AQPS foal crop annually numbers around eleven hundred and each crop start their names with a common letter which denotes the year of foaling (Sire de Grugy and Silviniaco Conti are others who have represented the AQPS ‘S’ generation with distinction in Britain). Sprinter Sacre himself is less than one per cent non-thoroughbred, the first six dams on the bottom line of his extended pedigree all being by thoroughbred sires (horses must be by an approved stallion and be 87.5 per cent thoroughbred - in practice having fifteen thoroughbreds among its sixteen closest antecedents - to get into the AQPS stud book). Sprinter Sacre’s sire Network, a son of Monsun, changed hands for €290,000 at the Arqana December Sale and stood his first season at his new base at the Haras d’Enki where the French-bred six times David Nicholson Mares’ Hurdle winner Quevega (whose first foal is a Beat Hollow filly) was said to be among fifty select mares visiting him. Network, who had more than twenty individual winners in the latest season, has had some libido problems in recent seasons and his new owners hope that changing his routine - he is now reportedly ridden out every day - will help to make him more successful at covering his mares. Sprinter Sacre’s dam, the once-raced Fatima III, has three other winners to her name, two of them, Kashima (by Kadalko) and Nuit Sacree (by Brier Creek), successful over jumps in cross-country chases in France. Fatima’s other winner Regain du Charbonneau (by Arnaqueur) won a bumper for David Pipe. Sprinter Sacre also has an unraced three-year-old sister named Divine Sacree and a yearling brother named Flinteur Sacre. There is more about the extended family in the essay that appeared on Sprinter Sacre in Chasers & Hurdlers 2012/13.

Eight of the nine Grade 1 races won by Sprinter Sacre over fences have come at around two miles, but he also won the Melling Chase at Aintree over two and a half, and would get further than that if tried (it would be interesting to see him over three miles, with a King George VI Chase on good ground certainly worth considering as an alternative to the Desert Orchid Chase in the next season). A fine jumper and usually a strong traveller, Sprinter Sacre has shown that he is versatile so far as ground requirements are concerned (successful on heavy), though connections have said they are unlikely to run him on soft ground in the future. The going was good to soft for his first two outings in the latest season, and, as already stated, good at Cheltenham and Sandown. Sprinter Sacre usually wears ear plugs in his races, and has done so for both his wins in the Queen Mother Champion Chase.

* * *

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