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Archive for March, 2016

This will be one of the top stories in the UK racing world this year. About a horse with a heart murmur and the team that brought him back to Cheltenham — two years later.

The eye of a champion. Photo and copyright, THE GUARDIAN. Photographer:Tom Jenkins.

The eye of a champion. Photo and copyright, THE GUARDIAN. Photographer:Tom Jenkins.

If you loved Lassie, or My Friend Flicka, or Black Beauty, or The Black Stallion then you already can sense what this story’s all about. Except that it really happened. One of those cases where truth trumps fiction by a mile.

This was the scene in 2013, when one of the best horses ever was pulled up.

This was the scene in 2013 at Kempton, when one of the best horses to ever race in the British National Hunt was pulled up.

Sprinter Sacre was THE STAR of the British National Hunt from his debut in 2011 until he was pulled up by jockey Barry Geraghty at Kempton in December of 2013, half-way through the Desert Orchid Chase. The race had been billed as a showdown between the undefeated Sprinter Sacre, who had raced to victory 10 consecutive times, and another star of the chase, Sire de Grugy. Geraghty probably saved Sprinter’s life that day, because the early diagnosis was “something to do with the heart.” No-one wanted to believe it: a brilliant horse, fondly nicknamed “The Black Aeroplane,” might be finished.

The cardiac problem had, quite literally, come out of nowhere. There were no warning signs of any kind. Brilliant trainer, Nicky Henderson, would have known if something was wrong with a horse who was the Frankel of chasers. As for Sprinter’s fans around the world, one could almost hear the silence, heavy as a stone, as the great horse was led off the course.

It was this Sprinter that all were expecting to see at Kempton that day. The superstar who had most recently won the 2013 Queen Mother Chase at Cheltenham:

 

 

 

Barry Geraghty after SPRINTER'S 2013 win at Cheltenham:

Champion jockey,Barry Geraghty, after SPRINTER’S 2013 win at Cheltenham: “I’ve ridden some brilliant horses over the years, but it’s the ease and grace [with which] he does it that sets him apart.”

When the tests were all in, the diagnosis was an irregular heartbeat. Sprinter Sacre was put on the equine equivalent of complete bed rest. As suddenly as he had burst onto the scene in 2011, he was gone.

Trainer Henderson would refer to the next two years as “a wilderness,” stressing that Sprinter’s full recovery — if such was even possible — was to be “very, very hard on everyone involved.” Because, initially, it was thought he might be back to his winning ways within about three months, in time for Cheltenham 2014, the biggest event on the National Hunt calendar. The equivalent of the Breeders Cup or Champions Day or the Dubai Carnival for hurdlers and chasers. To win at Cheltenham is to be anointed a Champion of Champions. There’s just nothing quite like it. But there was no Cheltenham 2014 in the cards for “The Sprinter,” as the stable calls him..

SPRINTER SACRE with his groom and best friend, Sarwah Mohammed.

SPRINTER SACRE with his groom and best friend, Sarwah Mohammed.

 

SPRINTER SACRE with his "best girl," Hannah Maria Ryan.

SPRINTER SACRE with his “best girl,” Hannah Maria Ryan.

And so it was that two long years of hoping and praying began. Team Sprinter was formidable, including owners Raymond and Caroline Mould, equine cardiologist Celia Marr, groom Sarwah Mohammed, exercise riders Nico de Boinville and Hannah Maria Ryan, Henderson’s amazing Seven Barrows stable staff and — last but not least — the trainer himself. However, two years off for a National Hunt horse is long, since most don’t even begin their careers until the age of four or five. And The Sprinter was “on a roll” in his seventh year, often one of the best years for jumping horses. In April of 2013 he had become the first horse since the mighty Istabraq to win at all three major jumping festivals (Punchestown, Aintree and Cheltenham) and was on his way to the third highest Timeform rating ever, behind the jumping gods Arkle and Flyingbolt.

By the time The Sprinter made it back, he would be an older horse who’d been out of action for over 24 months. In how many countries do nine or ten year-old thoroughbreds still run — and win? (Note to the reader: National Hunt horses must be thoroughbreds, with the exception of the Selle Francais, who are permitted because the origin of the breed goes back to the thoroughbred. Sprinter Sacre, classified as a Selle Francais by some, is the son of thoroughbred sire, Network, and a grandson of the great Monsun. National Hunt horses typically compete until the age of ten and/or until they show that they are no longer competitive. Hurricane Fly, for example, raced until he was eleven.)

Some trainers might not have been bothered to even try. But Nicky Henderson isn’t “some” trainer. With champions like See You Then, Remittance Man, Punjabi, Binocular, Caracciola and Bob’s Worth on his CV, the Eaton graduate is considered one of the top National Hunt trainers. But the horse who had stolen hearts and raced off-the-charts for two undefeated years was, in Henderson’s view and, indeed, in the eyes of all who worked with him, set apart from all before him. Trying to bring The Sprinter back to form just wasn’t an option. But all agreed that the horse came first. Nothing new there: Nicky Henderson’s horses always come first.

 

SPRINTER with trainer, Nicky Henderson. Nicky is no stranger to great horses, having trained the likes of

“THE SPRINTER” with trainer, Nicky Henderson. Nicky is no stranger to great horses, having trained the likes of See You Then, Long Run, Caracciola, Bob’s Worth and Simonsig. But The Sprinter holds a very special place in his heart.

Team Sprinter must have been glad to be part of a community as they worked shoulder-to-shoulder, all the time knowing that if Sprinter wasn’t going to be safe running (i.e. in perfect health and condition), then retirement was the only recourse. And each day over twenty-four months, they had to find the courage to believe that he could come back, that he would come back. To say that the mission of bringing The Sprinter back was tricky would be an understatement of huge proportions, as Henderson indicated in February 2014:

By late in 2014, the horse’s cardiac problems had been ruled a thing of the past. But he still didn’t seem quite himself. Pivotal was young Nico de Boinville, The Sprinter’s regular exercise rider, who had a kind of special bond of his own with the 17h gelding. It was Nico who rode The Sprinter on his works, and Nico who told Henderson, “… I can’t put my finger on it, but he’s not quite right. There’s something missing.” So they soldiered on, hoping to see a glimmer of The Sprinter of old.

 

Nico and SPRINTER head out for a gallop. Photo and copyright, Toby Connors.

Nico and THE SPRINTER head out for a gallop. Photo and copyright, Toby Connors.

 

On the gallops. Nico and SPRINTER SACRE. Photo and copyright, Toby Connors.

A pause on the gallops. Nico and SPRINTER SACRE. Photo and copyright, Toby Connors.

There were long sojourns with Nico and Hannah over the Lambourn downs, loving hands and loving words and, at last, there he was: back with the team that loved him. His first start was in January 2015 and this was how it ended:

The headlines read “Dodging Bullets Destroys Sprinter Sacre,” but that wasn’t true. Barry Geraghty stated that the horse had tired, which made a good deal of sense after not racing for two years. Nicky Henderson was quick to point out that, as a nine year-old, The Sprinter may not be the “same horse” but he had run a blinder despite his age. Next came another two races: at Cheltenham in the 2015 Queen Mother’s Chase, a tired Sprinter Sacre was pulled up. Then, at Sandown in April, he finished second to Special Tiara with Nico de Boinville riding him for the first time. As The Sprinter’s exercise rider from the very beginning, Nico was a natural partner for the horse and, although the move was precipitated by Barry Geraghty signing on as first rider for owner JP McManus, Nico had ridden himself into the spotlight as the jockey of the 2015 Hero of Cheltenham, Coneygree, in March.

Coneygree ridden by jockey Nico de Boinville after winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup Chase on Gold Cup Day during the Cheltenham Festival at Cheltenham Racecourse, England, Friday March 13, 2015. (AP Photo/PA, David Davies) UNITED KINGDOM OUT NO SALES NO ARCHIVE

CONEYGREE and Nico de Boinville after winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup Chase on Gold Cup Day, Friday March 13, 2015. (AP Photo/PA, David Davies)

At this point, Henderson remained optimistic and Nico reported that The Sprinter had felt most like himself since 2013 during the Sandown run. But it would also be fair to say that the jury was still out on the horse’s future and his passionate fans were beginning to suspect that his best days were behind him and mourned his demise with statements on Facebook like, “Poor boy….he’s just not the horse he used to be. Retire him, please!”

And then “…the real Sprinter Sacre” showed up, on November 15, 2015, with Nico again in the irons:

As he said, Henderson found the win “overwhelming” and was quick to note that, for the first time, The Sprinter “took” Nico to the win. Next came a re-match with his old nemesis, the wonderful Sire de Grugy, in the 2015 version of the same race — the Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton — where the champion had been pulled up in 2013:

Granted, he didn’t put miles between himself and Sire Grugy to win, as The Sprinter of old might well have done. Nicky Henderson was of a mind that the Desert Orchid performance had been better, but what happened at Kempton was that The Sprinter fought back, every inch of the way, to defeat a champion chaser in Sire de Grugy. And that told the trainer that heart and courage were igniting his big gelding’s spirit.

" I can dream, can't I?" Nicky Henderson and THE SPRINTER early in 2016.

” I can dream, can’t I?” Nicky Henderson and THE SPRINTER early in 2016.

The Sprinter had weathered his 2015 season well and after consultation with the Moulds, Nico and others in his inner circle, Henderson determined to aim the big horse for Cheltenham 2016 and The Queen Mother Chase. Now, The Sprinter is a racing icon and beloved by his whole team, but he’s not a “love bug” as far as personality goes. Rather, he’s a curmudgeon….not exactly Mr. Grump, but close. So, when he started to show aggression on a regime of slower gallops, someone who knew him less well might have just chalked it up to temperament. But Nico and Henderson knew better: The Sprinter was saying that he wanted a race and wanted it badly. As the trainer pointed out, “Horses know when they’re stars and they know where they belong…in the winner’s enclosure, right at the top of the heap.”

As Racing UK reported at the end of the 2015 season, quoting Henderson:

“He is not what he was two years ago but we are creeping up there,” Henderson added. “They are two very good performances so far this year. He has done a lot of slow work, rather than fast work. It has been different. We put in a new deep sand canter and he did a lot of work in there. He does not do a lot of galloping.”

Despite one reported pre-Cheltenham work where The Sprinter looked spectacular, Henderson remained cautiously optimistic about his ten year-old champion:

March 16, 2016: the field was set for the Cheltenham Queen Mother Chase. The Sprinter was one of three ten year-olds entered, the others being Sire de Grugy and Felix Yonger. All the others were eight year-olds, including impressive jumpers like Dodging Bullets, Somersby and Un de Sceaux. Nor did The Sprinter go off as the favourite, although he clearly was THE ONE that people were there to see. Could their fallen hero triumph, joining the only horse to ever stage such a comeback: the great Moscow Flyer, who had won the Queen Mother Chase at Cheltenham in 2005 as a ten year-old?

The place went potty. The stands shuddered and shook. Trainer and jockey cried. Twitter exploded with cries of joy. Trainers like the eminent Willie Mullins showered praise on Henderson and Team Sprinter. Horses just don’t do what Sprinter Sacre had just done and everyone knew it.

The Kiss: Nico and SPRINTER SACRE in the winner's enclosure, Cheltenham 2016.

The Kiss: Nico and SPRINTER SACRE in the winner’s enclosure, Cheltenham 2016.

So thank you, Mr. and Mrs. Mould, Nicky Henderson, Nico de Boinville, Sarwah Mohammed, Hannah Maria Ryan, Barry Geraghty and the staff at Seven Barrows for taking us to Dreamworld on the back of your fabulous, fabulous horse:

 

 

BONUS FEATURE

For a look at Sprinter Sacre’s career from 2011-2013, including videos:

https://thevaulthorseracing.wordpress.com/2013/02/25/hes-better-than-frankel-sprinter-sacre/

 

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