Rarely can the performance of just one horse have generated so much debate and discussion than that of chasing superstar SPRINTER SACRE on his return to action at Ascot last Saturday.
Not just before his targeted race -- the Grade One Sodexo Clarence House (formerley the Victor Chandler) -- when punters and professionals alike clamoured for a re-run of the spectacular victories of his pomp.
But also afterwards when we all tried to digest the reason behind his first defeat (on completion) since he was turned over by AL FEROF and the ill-fated SPIRIT SON in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival of 2011.
Curiously, the question we wanted answering most lingered on, even after Nicky Henderson’s nine-year-old had been trumped by DODGING BULLETS. Can the ‘Black Aeroplane’ rediscover his imperious best after more than a year sidelined with a heart scare?
The range of reactions since Sprinter Sacre’s reverse has been extraordinary. Disappointment has mingled with delight. Relief has rubbed shoulders with regret. Racing’s Twittersphere has caught fire, with some observers so downhearted by the Ascot outcome that they proclaim the great horse has gone at the game.
Let’s get one thing straight. Sprinter Sacre was NOT beaten through lack of fitness. I was paddock side on Saturday and saw a horse not far removed from his best in strength, muscle tone, presence and condition. Yes, he was on his toes, but that’s been the highly-strung nature of the beast since his winning debut at this track five years ago.
If anything, I felt he was a shade light, a little over-cooked maybe. But compared to the physical appearance I was shocked by of DENMAN when he returned at Kempton in 2009 after his absence with a similar health problem, Henderson’s charge was amazingly well.
Denman was duly thrashed by MADISON DU BERLAIS at the Sunbury track, giving the doom-mongers a field day. But only a month later, he was runner-up in the Cheltenham Gold Cup and went on to repeat the feat the following two years, as well as lumping 11-12 into third spot in the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury.
Of course, no two horses are the same. But the portents for Sprinter Sacre must be much more encouraging than they were for Denman in the immediate aftermath of his comeback.
Beaten he might have been, but only by a seriously improving, younger animal in Paul Nicholls’s son of supersire Dubawi -- and only after a race in which he travelled and jumped with aplomb.
At the height of the horse’s powers, I am sure jockey Barry Geraghty would have let Sprinter Sacre roll and go on from about four out when he loomed alongside leader SOMERSBY and briefly dragged Dodging Bullets off the bridle. Instead Geraghty tried to nurse his mount home, wary of the vital need not to ask too much after such a lengthy time out of action.
The tactics contributed to his eclipse. He has never been a horse to produce a sudden change of gear at the business end of a race and with Dodging Bullets, in the form of his life and hard-fit, finding the time to recover, there was no disgrace in Sprinter Sacre bowing to fatigue and ring-rustiness from the second last. And there can be no criticism aimed at Geraghty, whose judgement will surely reap dividends if the expected improvement in the horse materialises.
Henderson is sure that improvement can be eked out of him. He reckons his charge was 90% right for Saturday. I suspect the extra ten per cent will manifest itself not in raw fitness but match-fitness, race-readiness.
This still hasn’t prevented those expecting to witness the former champion’s fireworks of old digging themselves into a dejected stew. But are they deluding themselves? Is it realistic to expect the Sprinter Sacre of 2012 and 2013 to be revisited after such a serious health breakdown?
Let’s nudge to one side, if we can, that freakish, monster-like power and pace that once electrified the Cheltenhams and Aintrees of our landscape. And let’s allow him to race as a mere mortal. Once we’ve made that adjustment, there is little doubt that Saturday’s display was a perfectly satisfactory display. Indeed, had that been the comeback effort of reigning 2m champion SIRE DE GRUGY, who has also been sidelined this term, the bouquets would have been flying in the air like confetti.
For Sprinter Sacre, it’s all about recovery time and that dreaded bounce-factor now. So far, the signs are good. Henderson reports he has come out of the race well. The tests on his heart are positive. The trickle of blood found dripping from his nose have been dismissed as inconsequential. And most importantly of all, it is to be hoped that the horse’s own confidence is rebuilt because, as heart specialist Celia Marr stresses, the most debilitating side-effects of an irregular heartbeat can be the impact on an animal’s mental state, on his willingness to pull out more to go through the barrier.
Providing what happened in the closing stages at Ascot was not evidence of his unwillingness, fuelled by timidity or fear, I am certain Sprinter Sacre remains a worthy favourite for the Betway Champion Chase on Wednesday 11th March. Mind you, Dodging Bullets is startling value at 5/1, isn’t he?
One thing’s for sure -- Sprinter’s defeat has put the cherry on top of the anticipation we are all gripped by in the weeks leading up to the Festival. At least we now know the race will not be a one-horse procession. It will be one of the highlights of the week. Let the debate and discussion rage on!