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Archive for February, 2013

On January 27, 2013, J.A. McGrath of Britain’s The Daily Telegraph proclaimed:

Without running the slightest risk of getting carried away, Sprinter Sacre, the winner of his seventh consecutive race over fences in Saturday’s Victor Chandler Chase at Cheltenham, has emerged as another racing superstar. He is the business. He threatens to take the mantle from Frankel as the sport’s chief equine promoter, and Henderson, his trainer, is doing his best to cope with the inevitable pressures that come with it.”

The kid causing the commotion: Sprinter Sacre

The kid causing the commotion: Sprinter Sacre and his best friend, Sarwah Mohammed. Photo and copyright, Toby Connors.

Well, this really is quite the claim for a UK journalist to make. And, to be fair, Sprinter Sacre is a Selle Francais and not a thoroughbred. Be that as it may, the darling of National Hunt racing in the UK is being hailed as better than other chasers as well — that is to say, better than the likes of Red Rum, Desert Orchid and Istabraq. His star has yet to be set in the firmament of the greats, but if he stays on course (and “if” is, indeed, the longest word in the English language) he has an excellent chance of ending up there. No question, though, that what Sprinter Sacre has done to date marks him as one of the truly great jumpers in National Hunt history. Deep through the heart, with a determination to win that hardly needs asking.

As many of you know, this is the season of National Hunt racing across the pond and there is no question that the Brits love their jumpers. In fact, the Cheltenham Festival for 2013 is kicking off shortly  and it generates a good deal of anticipation, since it’s like a Breeders Cup for jumpers. The horses of the National Hunt are arguably the greatest of all equine athletes, covering distances of 2 – 4.5 miles over the rolling courses of Sandown, Kempton, Newbury, Doncaster, Cheltenham or the fabled Aintree. The hurdles or fences set in their path can be anywhere from over 3.5 ft. for the hurdlers, to 4.5 ft. and over for the chasers.

In the UK, many thoroughbreds that start out on the flat are switched to the National Hunt if they meet with little success at the former. The brilliant Istabraq, a son of Sadler’s Wells and grandson of Secretariat, is a well-known example. (The story of Istabraq appears in an earlier posting on THE VAULT @ https://thevaulthorseracing.wordpress.com/2011/02/23/secretariats-heart-the-story-of-istabraq/)  In addition, illustrious thoroughbreds who favour distance, such as the 4-time Gold Cup winner, Yeats, go to stud to produce National Hunt rather than flat runners.

Sprinter Sacre may well be the next British superstar in the making, but we won’t hear much about him in the North American, European or Southern Hemisphere racing publications, because National Hunt horses and their community are caught up in a kind of modern-day class struggle.When I asked a British friend of mine about the differing attitudes toward the National Hunt and the flat, she responded that the former was really a “sport of the people,” while the latter was still considered the pastime of the rich. Translation:the National Hunt carries a lower social status, even though its following is greater than that of flat racing in the UK.

Class differences aside, even a casual knowledge about the National Hunt reveals that its fans are as ardent, its trainers and jockeys as skilled, and the horses as spectacular as any running in the Epsom Derby. And Sprinter Sacre, the latest in a stunning array of courageous and athletic individuals, is proof of the pudding.

A very special thanks to Toby Connors, who shares his passion for racing on the flat and over the jumps by composing photos that capture the drama and speak to the heart. Through his lens, the power and beauty of the National Hunt or Royal Ascot, the Lambourn gallops or people behind the scenes who are so important to the horses, unfold in a series of absolutely stunning visual narratives. THE VAULT is privileged to have his collaboration in telling the story of a truly great hero of the turf.

(NOTE: A brief explanation of different National Hunt jump races appears at the end of this article for those interested.)

 

Sprinter Sacre shown here in the walking ring with his lad and best friend, Sarwah Mohammed.

The gorgeous Sprinter Sacre. Photo and copyright, Toby Connors.

As was noted above, Sprinter Sacre is a Selle Francais. Through an intensive and aggressive breeding program, the French created the Selle Francais by selectively crossing their sturdy native horses with Thoroughbred stallions. Judicious introduction of the French AngloArab and French Trotter has added brilliance, agility and energy to the breed. The epitome of what a sport horse should be — intelligent, athletic and strong, with good bone and muscle — together with the Selle Francais’ lovely disposition makes them ideal in a show ring, as well as on a National Hunt course. (The North American Selle Francais Horse Association, Inc. {NASFHA} was authorized in early 1990 by the French National Stud and keeps a registry of Selle Francais horses bred in France but born in North America.)

Although bred in France, Sprinter Sacre was raised and trained in England at the Seven Barrows stable of legendary National Hunt trainer, Nicky Henderson, near Lambourn, Berkshire. Henderson’s father, John, was one of the founders of the Racecourse Holdings Trust (now called the Jockey Club Racecourses) and, before that, distinguished himself as an Aide-De-Camp of Field Marshall Montgomery.  Son Nicky learned his craft at the side of the incomparable Fred Winter; the late trainer, who died in 2004, is the only man to have won the Grand National, the Champion Hurdle and the Gold Cup as both a jockey and a trainer. Now 62, Henderson began training in 1978 and has distinguished himself with horses like See You Then and Remittance Man, an array of Champion Trainer awards, a record 5 wins in the Champion’s Hurdle and the best winning record of any current active trainer at the Cheltenham Festival. Current stars of the Henderson stable (other than Sprinter Sacre) are Long Run, Bob’s Worth, Simonsig and Binocular. Henderson also trains a number of good, honest horses who might never make the headlines, even though they go to work with the same willingness and courage as their more famous stablemates. No matter if you’re the fabulous Long Run or a chestnut no-one’s ever heard of before — at Seven Barrows, all are appreciated and loved.

Henderson and Long Run, a superstar in his own right. Timeform rated him 184 in 2011, making Long Run the best chaser in training that year. The gelding has won the Gold Cup twice in 3 years, as well as the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham.

Henderson and Long Run. A superstar in his own right, Timeform rated Long Run at 184 in 2011, making him the highest rated jumps horse in training that year. The gelding has won the Gold Cup, as well as the King George at Kempton twice in three years. 

So what’s all the excitement about this Sprinter Sacre fellow?

It started in December of 2011, when Henderson moved the gelding from hurdles to make his chase debut at Doncaster, under jockey David Bass:

Sprinter Sacre won by 24 lengths. Henderson was happy but far from impressed: he thought his 4 year-old was too good looking and knew he lacked the fitness of a champion chaser. As do many chasers, Sprinter Sacre had been started over hurdles first, before moving into the chasing ranks as a novice. In the hurdling ranks, he’d been good but not overly impressive, having literally “run out of gas” in his final start over the hurdles at Cheltenham. However, going into 2011-2012, legendary jockey A.P. McCoy suggested to Henderson that the youngster — most National Hunt horses are considered young at 5 — should have his breathing corrected.

The transformation in Sprinter Sacre after he had had “his wind done” was stunning, suggesting that he had tired in his last hurdle race the year before precisely because he couldn’t get enough “oxy-fuel” into his lungs to carry on.

Here is Sprinter Sacre in the Arkle Trophy Chase at Cheltenham in March 2012. With the brilliant Barry Geraghty in the irons, the gelding had already won the Wayward Lad Novices Chase at Kempton by 16 lengths, in a performance the Daily Telegraph described as “thrilling” and “spectacular.” Following which, Sprinter Sacre took the Game Spirit Chase at Newbury. Less than a month later, the pair started in the Arkle Trophy Chase on the second day of the Cheltenham Festival.  Named after the great National Hunt champion of the 1960’s, the distance is slightly over 2 miles, featuring 12 jumps of 4.5 ft. or greater.

The accolades were instantaneous:

“Sprinter Sacre was often referred to as “the hype horse” during the buildup to this week’s Festival but his astonishing performance in winning the Arkle Trophy suggested that, if anything, his ability has been understated. He coasted around this most demanding of racecourses to score by seven lengths and become the 40th Festival winner for his trainer, Nicky Henderson, equalling the record.

As in his previous runs over fences, Sprinter Sacre never appeared less than entirely comfortable. This was his greatest test so far but victory was on the cards from the moment his main rival, Al Ferof, made a hash of the fourth-last.

From that point, the crowd cheered at every fence that Sprinter Sacre cleared, large numbers of them having clearly backed him at odds-on. There might have been a moment’s anxiety as Cue Card got within a couple of lengths at the final fence but the winner pulled clear within seconds of being asked to quicken by his jockey, Barry Geraghty.” (Chris Cook, The Guardian)

After the Arkle victory and a really good rub-down. Photo and copyright, Toby Connors.

After the Arkle victory came a really good rub-down. Photo and copyright, Toby Connors.

The champ doing his thing over jumps that would easily intimidate the faint of heart.

The champ doing his thing over jumps that would easily intimidate the faint of heart.

The champion, as his trainer saw it, was beginning to look like he had an embarrassment of riches — gorgeous, uber-talented, game and loving the attention that comes with winning. In fact, Henderson was thinking his glamour boy was keen to leave the competition in the dust because he was busier courting the cheers and applause of his fans.

Getting the job done: Sprinter Sacre and Barry Geraghty sprint away from a jump. Photo and copyright, Toby Connors.

Getting the job done: Sprinter Sacre and Barry Geraghty sprint away from a jump. Photo and copyright, Toby Connors.

But his jockey knew better: the horse was stronger now and knew the game plan. And if anyone should know a jumper’s potential, it would be the 33 year-old Barry Geraghty. The National Hunt began in Ireland and the Irish-born Geraghty carries the tradition in his veins. Prior to becoming Henderson’s first jockey in 2008, he had been crowned Irish Champion Jump Jockey (2000), had won the Grand National (in 2003, on Monty’s Pass). In 2009 Geraghty became the first jockey ever to win both the Grand National and the 4 most prestigious races at Cheltenham (Champions Hurdle, Champions Chase, Stayers Hurdle and the Gold Cup). Geraghty also piloted the mighty Moscow Flyer and the much-loved Kicking King to victory prior to becoming Henderson’s lead rider. So it is that when he talks about a horse as “scary good” or as “The Special One,” or confides “…(he’s) frighteningly good…one of the best I ever sat on,” everyone takes notice. And that is how Geraghty describes Sprinter Sacre.

The fabulous Moscow Flyer

The fabulous Moscow Flyer and Geraghty captured a number of hurdle and chase events, notably the Queen Mother Champion Chase (2003,2005), The Arkle Challenge Trophy (2002) and the Tingle Creek Chase (2003, 2004).

When you watch him race, the deceptive thing about Sprinter Sacre is that he makes an endurance test look like a walk in the park.

Never mind Gangnam Style. This is Frankel Style….and his fans are eating it up.

Apprentice jockey, Nico de Boinville, is Sprinter Sacre's regular exercise rider. " "I've been riding Sprinter Sacre since he was a baby, we've pretty much grown up together and I know him very well," he says. "I honestly don't think you're going to get a horse who's going to serve it up to him this season, that will only happen when [his novice-chasing stablemate] Simonsig turns up..." Photo and copyright, Tim Ireland/PA

Apprentice jockey, Nico de Boinville, is Sprinter Sacre’s regular exercise rider. “I’ve been riding Sprinter Sacre since he was a baby, we’ve pretty much grown up together and I know him very well,” he says. “I honestly don’t think you’re going to get a horse who’s going to serve it up to him this season, that will only happen when [his novice-chasing stablemate] Simonsig turns up…” Photo and copyright, Tim Ireland/PA

The beautiful Simonsig, a grey thoroughbred, is the same age as Sprinter Sacre. Under Henderson and Gareghty's tutelage, he has won

The fellow who’ll “serve it up to him”? The gorgeous grey, Simonsig, has won 9 of his 11 starts. Shown here with Geraghty in the irons, he’s another Henderson superstar. Photo and copyright, Toby Connors.

A month later, Sprinter Sacre started in the Grade One Maghull Novices Chase at Aintree at a distance of 2 miles. This would be his final race of the 2011-2012 season, closing out the year with 5 wins in as many starts.

The 2012-2013 season marks the point at which the comparisons between Sprinter Sacre and Frankel begin. We need to remember, of course, that with the closing of the flat racing season in Great Britain the National Hunt season takes over from roughly November until March, the Cheltenham Festival being the highlight for hurdlers and chasers. Henderson’s superstar would have had the whole of the flat racing season of 2012 to gear up – and Sprinter Sacre came back into training even bigger, and stronger, than he had been in the latter half of 2012.

The fitness level of the gelding owed much to the famous Lambourn gallops, the subject of infinite numbers of equine artists and narratives. It was the National Hunt trainers who first adopted the method of conditioning their horses over the hills and dales of Ireland and England, an approach adapted to training the thoroughbred flat runner by the likes of Vincent O’Brien, Aidan O’Brien and Sir Henry Cecil. It is in this natural environment that the endurance of a horse is both tested and developed.

Sprinter Sacre, with Nico aboard, leads the Henderson string on a gallop. This kind of work was the testing ground for some of the greats of the flat in the UK too, notably Nijinsky and Frankel. Photo and copyright, Toby Connors.

Sprinter Sacre, with Nico de Boinville aboard, leads one Henderson string on a gallop. This kind of work was the testing ground for some of the greats of the flat in the UK as well, notably Nijinsky and Frankel. Photo and copyright, Toby Connors.

The exercise is also meant to be pleasurable. Here, Nico and Sprinter take a time-out to breathe in the morning air.

The gallops are also meant to be pleasurable. Here, Nico and Sprinter come off the pace to appreciate the sounds and smells of the morning. Photo and copyright, Toby Connors.

The Frankel comparison may have been aided by the fact that “Sprinter,” as he’s called in the barn, is as enthusiastic to get on with the job as was Sir Henry Cecil’s “Usain Colt.” But, unlike Frankel, the gelding tends to gear up before a race to the point where Henderson has now outfitted him with ear plugs in an effort to encourage him to focus on the race, rather than other distractions. Below are Henderson’s thoughts and reflections as he and his champ readied for the 2012-2013 jumps season. Of particular interest are the trainer’s concerns about the impact of the weather on race conditions, which would turn out to be timely.

Frankel’s final bow was fresh in the hearts and minds of racing fans when Sprinter lined up with the competition at Sandown in the Tingle Creek Chase on December 8, 2012. Some had wondered aloud, as Henderson indicated, whether or not the champion had really beaten a horse of consequence in 2011-2012. But at Tingle Creek, the bay beauty was up against the Paul Nichols-trained Sanctuaire, winner of his previous 3 chases, including the Celebration Chase and ridden by the incomparable Ruby Walsh. (Be sure to stick around for the commentary following the race for important details regarding the win.)

The winning margin was 15 lengths, hard held by an otherwise motionless Geraghty.

Referring to Tingle Creek as a “demolition job” here’s how Charlie Brooks of the Daily Telegraph begins:

“Frankel was extraordinary. He came along pretty soon after Sea The Stars, who wasn’t too shoddy. And anyone who saw Desert Orchid or Kauto Star winning the King George witnessed unbelievable performances. Then there was Istrabraq and I’m trying not to include Red Rum, because he was a mere handicapper. After Saturday’s Tingle Creek at Sandown, we now we have Sprinter Sacre, and I have a feeling he’s better than all of the above and I seriously doubt that anyone who was lucky to have been at the Esher track will disagree with me.”

Just after winning the Tingle Creek, the champ gets a pat from exercise rider, Nico

Just after winning the Tingle Creek, the champ gets a pat from exercise rider, Nico. Photo and copyright, Toby Connors.

Sanctuaire had given it his all in the Tingle Creek, setting blistering fractions most of the way.

Sanctuaire had given it his all in the Tingle Creek, setting blistering fractions most of the way.

Next up was the Victor Chandler Chase, to be held on January 19 at Ascot. However, the course conditions proved so horrendous that it was postponed by a week and moved to Cheltenham. Even at its new locale, the conditions were far from ideal. Henderson was anxious enough to confess to the press “I was taking fits” and after it was all over, Barry Geraghty stated that he wouldn’t like to take Sprinter over ground any worse. In the field were Sanctuaire (Ruby Walsh) and Kumbeshwar, who had finished second to Sprinter Sacre in the Tingle Creek.

This time, the winning margin was only a length shy of the previous win. But over this kind of testing ground, 14 lengths represent something more like 25. And the win was also Sprinter’s seventh in a row, making him a perfect 7 for 7 over jumps, and boosting his record to 11 wins out of 13 starts under jumping rules. If all goes well at Henderson’s Seven Barrows stable — and there is no reason to think that it won’t — Sprinter Sacre’s final start in 2012-2013 will be in March in the Grade 1 Queen Mother Champion Chase at the Cheltenham Festival.

As the turf announcer for the Victor Chandler exclaimed: ” The Queen Mother Champion Chase will be at his mercy.”

All together now: Sprinter Sacre with his lad, jockey Barry Geraghty and trainer Nicky Henderson after winning the Chandler.

All together now: Sprinter Sacre with his lad, Sarwah Mohammed, jockey Barry Geraghty and trainer Nicky Henderson after winning the Victor Chandler. Photo and copyright, Toby Connors.

Portrait of a champion. Photo and copyright, Toby Connors.

Portrait of a champion. Photo and copyright, Toby Connors.

(NOTE ON NATIONAL HUNT RACING:  Originating in Ireland in the 18th century, each type of National Hunt race has its own particular features. An average hurdle race, for example, involves a minimum of 8 hurdles over 3.5 feet high and is run over a distance of at least 2 miles. The chase involves horses jumping fences of 4.5 feet minimum and courses that range from 2 – 4.5 miles. The steeplechase is restricted to thoroughbreds that have a hunter certificate; the most famous steeplechase in Britain is the Grand National. Thoroughbreds that hurdle, chase or steeplechase need to have an aptitude for jumping. But since National Hunt racing demands that horses both jump and run over longer distances than is usual on a flat course, a National Hunt horse needs to be particularly courageous and tough, as well as blessed with endurance.)

 

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