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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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NOTE: THE VAULT is a non-profit website. (Any advertising that appears on THE VAULT is placed there by WordPress and the profit, if any, goes to WordPress.) We make every effort to honour copyright for the photographs used in our articles. It is not our policy to use the property of any photographer without his/her permission, although the task of sourcing photographs is hugely compromised by the social media, where many photographs prove impossible to trace. Please do not hesitate to contact THE VAULT regarding any copyright concerns. Thank you.

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The Cheltenham Festival kicks off this coming week, beginning on Tuesday, March 12. It’s a 4-day celebration of the very best of the season, and the horses arrive carrying the hopes and dreams of owners, trainers, jockeys and passionate fans. 

This handbook of some of the most hotly-contested races is aimed primarily at those who are less familiar with this oldest of thoroughbred racing venues. 

At the conclusion is the full 4-day race schedule, complete with race cards and profiles of individual horses. As for non-UK enthusiasts’ chances of watching Cheltenham live we can only suggest that you run a search on your computer to locate possible free live streaming. Failing that, both the http://www.racingpost.com (click on the television tab or go to its Cheltenham site) or http://www.atthraces.com will post replays probably less than 24 hours after the most popular races are run. 

As with our previous article, THE VAULT again thanks the generosity of Toby Connors in allowing us to use more of his fabulous photos. (Please note that they are all copyright-protected). 

In conclusion, THE VAULT expresses its hope that every one of the courageous horses and jockeys competing at this year’s Festival come home safe and sound. 

ZARKANDAR. Photo and copyright, Toby Connors.

Zarkandar, trained by the great Paul Nicholls, is the current favourite to win the Champion Hurdle. Photo and copyright, Toby Connors.

FESTIVAL RACES: A PRIMER

As was noted in our previous post about the champion hurdler, Sprinter Sacre, the official title of the Cheltenham Festival is the National Hunt Meeting. Originating in 1860, the Festival is held in March, close to the time of the Grand National Steeplechase at Aintree.  The Cheltenham Festival is the most prestigious National Hunt meet of the year. It is here that all but the Grand National horses come out  — and so many of them are absolute stars, as is the case this year.

The zenith of the Festival is the Grade 1 Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup Chase. Run at a distance of 3m 2f 110y on the closing day, March 15, it can be compared to the most elite races for thoroughbreds run on the flat. Except that the horses themselves can be thoroughbreds or thoroughbred-derived breeds, like the Selle Francais. (In National Hunt racing, only the Grand National Steeplechase is reserved strictly for thoroughbreds.) Famous jumpers to have won the Gold Cup include the greatest of them all, Golden Miller. Born in 1927, the bay gelding made 55 starts and won 29 times. He took the Gold Cup on 5 consecutive occasions, between 1932-1936. And, as if that weren’t enough, in 1934 he won the British Grand National and the Gold Cup — the only horse to have ever accomplished this feat in a single season. Owned latterly by the Honorable Dorothy Paget, Golden Miller died in 1957, leaving a National Hunt record still unequalled today.

The amazing Golden Miller, shown here, not only won the Cheltenham Golden Cup for 5 consecutive years, but is the only horse to have won the British and Irish Grand Nationals, as well as the Gold Cup, in the same year -- 1934.

The amazing Golden Miller, shown here, not only won the Cheltenham Golden Cup for 5 consecutive years, but is the only horse to have won the British and Irish Grand Nationals, as well as the Gold Cup, in the same year — 1934.

Other great horses have won over a period of 2-3 consecutive years: the Vincent O’Brien-trained Cottage Rake (3 times, from 1948-1950), the beloved Arkle (3 times, from 1964-1966), Raymond R. Guest’s L’Escargot (twice, in 1970 and again in 1971) and most recently the champion, Best Mate (3 times, from 2002-2004). Other noteworthy winners, each of whom was well-loved by his racing public, include Desert Orchid, Kauto Star (twice in 3 years) and his stablemate, Denman, as well as The Dikler, Dawn Run, Imperial Call and Master Oats. The 2011 winner, Paul Nicholls’ Long Run, will compete again in this year’s Gold Cup.

Golden Miller’s 1935 Gold Cup victory:

The fabulous Kauto Star leads his buddy, Denman, and the champion Neptune Collanges (grey) home in the 2007 Gold Cup:

 

SHINING STARS

MARCH 12

The Racing Post Arkle Challenge Trophy (G1): Simonsig (10) and Overturn (9) expected to do battle.

DISTANCE: 2m

According to jockey Barry Geraghty, his boss’ Simonsig is the only jumper he knows who might overhaul another champion of the Henderson stable: Sprinter Sacre. No worries this season, though, as Simonsig hasn’t been put to the test. The favourite in the Arkle, the gorgeous grey is expected to be challenged by Donald McCain’s talented Overturn.

Simonsig and trainer, Nicky Henderson.

Simonsig and trainer, Nicky Henderson. The grey has won 4 of his last 5 starts and has only ever lost once throughout his career. Photo and copyright, Toby Connors.

Horse Racing - StanJames.com Fighting Fifth Hurdle - Newcastle Racecourse

Overturn, a son of the great Barathea (Sadler’s Wells), hasn’t had as unblemished a record as Simonsig, but he has won his previous 3 starts this season.

 

The Stan James Champion Challenge Hurdle Trophy (G1) : Hurricane Fly (7), Zarkandar (10), Rock On Ruby (9), Grandouet (6) and Binocular (2)

DISTANCE: 2m110y

One of the best is Rock On Ruby. Photo and copyright, Toby Connors.

One of the best is Rock On Ruby. Trainer Harry Fry’s 8 year-old has won 2 of 4 starts this season and will run in blinkers for the first time in the Champion Challenge Hurdle. Photo and copyright, Toby Connors.

Don't be fooled by that pretty face. W.P. Mullins' superstar has won 16 of 19 starts over hurdles. The son of Montjeu goes into the race as the favourite.

Don’t be fooled by that pretty face. W.P. Mullins’ superstar, Hurricane Fly, has won 16 of 19 starts over hurdles. The son of Montjeu goes into the race as the favourite. Photo and copyright, Toby Connors.

This race promises to be a thriller, with the current favourite, Hurricane Fly, taking on a number of champion horses. Unless he’s hugely unlucky, there’s no reason that Hurricane Fly shouldn’t dominate again, even though the punters are very keen on the second choice favourite, Zarkandar.

Nicky Henderson's Binocular (green) races with Hurricane Fly (royal blue).

Nicky Henderson’s Binocular (green) races against Hurricane Fly (royal blue). A very decent jumper, Binocular has been beaten more than once by Hurricane Fly and Rock On Ruby. But come race day, he can be counted on to try his best. Photo and copyright, Toby Connors.

Could he be the spoiler? Zarkandar has won his last 3 starts.

Could he be the spoiler? Zarkandar has won his last 3 starts. By Azamour ex. Zarkasha (Kahyasi) he’s got all the pedigree he needs to win. Photo and copyright, Toby Connors.

The OLGB Mares’ Hurdle (G2): Featuring the incomparable Quevega (5)

DISTANCE: 2m4f

This is one impressive lady! Champion Quevega goes to post. Photo and copyright, Toby Connors.

This is one impressive lady! Champion Quevega goes to post. Photo and copyright, Toby Connors.

Her sire, Robin Des Champs (FR) was himself a very fine jumper, so you could say it’s in her blood. But even then. Quevega, a 9 year-old, has won her last 6 starts and has a lifetime record of 20-13-0-4. Trained by the noted W P Mullins and ridden to each of those victories by the accomplished Ruby Walsh, the last time out Quevega vanquished Voler La Vedette, who isn’t back in this particular race to take her on again. If she wins the OLGB Mares’ Hurdle, it will be for the 5th consecutive year, equalling the record of Golden Miller in the Gold Cup.

How fabulous is this great mare? Just take a look:

NOTE: As we go to press, Quevega has also been entered in the Ladbroke’s World Champion Hurdle, but trainer WP “Willie” Mullins has indicated he favours this race for his champion mare.

MARCH 13

The Sportingbet Queen Mother Champion Chase (G1): Sprinter Sacre (8), Sizing Europe (6), Finian’s Rainbow (2), Sanctuaire (5)

The handsome Sanctuaire goes down to the start.

The handsome Sanctuaire goes down to the start.Paul Nicholls’ champion has won 4 of his last 6 starts. The bad news? The 2 he lost were to Sprinter Sacre… Photo and copyright, Toby Connors.

 

As was suggested in our last post here on THE VAULT, the Queen Mum is Sprinter Sacre’s to lose. Even though his enthusiastic running style leaves his trainer’s insides in ruins, Nicky Henderson is not willing to tinker with it on March 13th.

The horses Henderson’s superstar is poised to take on aren’t chopped liver either. The fabulous Sizing Europe has earned the right to be the bettors’ second choice: he’s only lost once since December 2011 and has earned over 800,000 BPS. But his single defeat did come at the hands of Finian’s Rainbow, another Henderson trainee who ranks as third pick. Mail de Bievre, the fourth choice of the betting public, was 5th and 4th in his last two races; his last win was in 2010.

Sizing Europe has already earned over 800,000 BPS. He's a real champion and finds himself in strong company in the Queen Mother Champion Chase.

Sizing Europe has already earned over 800,000 BPS. He’s a real champion and finds himself in strong company in the Queen Mother Champion Chase. Photo and copyright, Toby Connors.

Sprinter Sacre looking to bring his fans to their feet once again. Photo and copyright, Toby Connors.

Sprinter Sacre looking to bring his fans to their feet once again. Photo and copyright, Toby Connors.

The Wetherby’s Champion Bumper (G1)

 DISTANCE: 2m110y

What’s most exciting about this race has little to do with winners or losers. Trainer Aidan O’Brien has returned to Cheltenham for the first time since his mighty Istabraq (Sadler’s Wells ex. Betty’s Secret by Secretariat) was pulled up in 2002 in the Champion’s Hurdle and subsequently retired. This time, the horse in question is a son of Arc winner Dylan Thomas, Shield by name. The colt is a youngster by National Hunt standards at the age of 4 and has only 2 starts under his belt, even though he won one of them. Owned by O’Brien’s wife, Anne Marie, herself a canny breeder who runs her own farm and stable, Shield will be ridden by none other than Joseph O’Brien. It should be a real family affair and Aidan, who made his reputation as a Jumps trainer before going to Coolmore seems delighted to rekindle the excitement of Festival days.

Istabraq, the horse that moved a nation and who still ranks as one of the top 5 most popular Irish personalities today. To read more about this grandson of American legend, Secretariat, see THE VAULT's piece on Istabraq entitled "Secretariat's Heart..."

Istabraq, the horse that moved a nation and who still ranks as one of the top 5 most popular Irish personalities today. To read more about this grandson of American legend, Secretariat, see THE VAULT’s piece on Istabraq entitled “Secretariat’s Heart…”

...and the new kid in O'Brien's life, Shield.

…and the new kid in O’Brien’s life, Shield.

MARCH 14

The Ryanair Chase (G1): Cue Card (3), First Lieutenant (5), Riverside Theatre (9), Alberta’s Run(1) 

(NOTE: As we go to press, both Sizing Europe and Finian’s Rainbow are also listed for this event, but that may change by March 12)

DISTANCE: 2m5f

Cue Card

Cue Card has a lifetime record of 15-8-4-0 going into the Ryanair. The 7 year-old gelding arrives with a devoted fan following which he richly deserves. He’s “simply magnificent” and many would consider him next in line after Sprinter Sacre. Photo and copyright, Toby Connors.

 

Viewers are in for a treat on the second to last day of the Festival, as the scintillating Cue Card struts his stuff in the Ryanair Chase. Below, Cue Card is shown here winning the Sportingbet Haldon Gold Cup Chase in 2012 by an absolutely remarkable distance. He has been every bit as solid in 2013:

March 15

BETFRED CHELTENHAM GOLD CUP CHASE: Bob’s Worth, Sir Des Champs, First Lieutenant and Long Run

DISTANCE: 3m2f110y

Bob's Worth stands as the current favourite in the Gold Cup (as of 08-03-2013). Photo and copyright, Toby Connors.

Bob’s Worth (leading here by a whisker) stands as the current favourite in the Gold Cup (as of 08-03-2013). Photo and copyright, Toby Connors.

Champion Long Run won the Gold Cup in 2011. He will do his very best to win a second time on March 15, the last day of the Festival.

Champion Long Run won the Gold Cup in 2011. He will do his very best to win a second time on March 15, the last day of the Festival. Photo and copyright, Toby Connors.

As was noted above, the Gold Cup is the crowning glory of the Cheltenham Festival, although it is not the last race on the card that day. And it is, as the British would say, a “very testing” race of over 3 miles. A “chase” is short for “steeplechase” and that means the highest and most complex array of jumps. Nicky Henderson’s Bob’s Worth is the current favourite given his power, stride and care over jumps of this magnitude. Nicky Henderson is also running the great Long Run — meaning that he’s got 2 of the strongest contenders. Here’s a look at the key horses in this, the most prestigious and storied race of the Cheltenham Festival:

One of the young "upstarts" in the Gold Cup field is jockey Sam Waley-Cohen, the son of Long Run's owner.

One of the young “upstarts” in the Gold Cup field is jockey Sam Waley-Cohen, the son of Long Run’s owner.

SCHEDULE OF RACES + RACE CARDS

Just CLICK on any of the list of races below to go to the race card. You can also click on a horse’s name to go to an individual race record. (Courtesy of the UK’s RACING POST)

NOTE: All entries listed were accurate as of March 8, 2013.

CHELTENHAM – Tue 12 March

1:30 William Hill Supreme Novices´ Hurdle Grade 1 2m110y CH4
2:05 Racing Post Arkle Challenge Trophy Chase Grade 1 2m CH4
2:40 JLT Specialty Handicap Chase Grade 3 3m110y CH4
3:20 Stan James Champion Hurdle Challenge Trophy Grade 1 2m110y CH4
4:00 Glenfarclas Handicap Chase (A Cross Country Chase) 3m7f CH4
4:40 OLBG Mares´ Hurdle (Registered As The David Nicholson Mares´ Hurdle) Grade 2 2m4f RUK
5:15 Rewards4Racing Novices´ Handicap Chase (Listed Race) 2m4f110y RUK
Final declarations will be available 48hrs in advance

CHELTENHAM – Wed 13 March

View all these cards on one page

1:30 John Oaksey National Hunt Chase (Amateur Riders´ Novices´ Chase ) 4m CH4
2:05 Neptune Investment Management Novices´ Hurdle (Registered Baring Bingham Novices´ Hurdle) Grade 1 2m5f CH4
2:40 RSA Chase (Grade 1) 3m110y CH4
3:20 Sportingbet Queen Mother Champion Chase Grade 1 2m CH4
4:00 Coral Cup (A Handicap Hurdle) Grade 3 2m5f CH4
4:40 Fred Winter Juvenile Handicap Hurdle Grade 3 2m110y RUK
5:15 Weatherbys Champion Bumper (A Standard Open National Hunt Flat Race) Grade 1 2m110y RUK
Entries for all Wednesday’s races will be available 5 days in advance

CHELTENHAM – Thu 14 March

View all these cards on one page

1:30 Jewson Novices´ Chase (Registered As The Golden Miller Novices´ Chase) Grade 2 2m4f
2:05 Pertemps Final (A Handicap Hurdle) (Listed Race) 3m
2:40 Ryanair Chase (Registered As The Festival Trophy Chase) Grade 1 2m5f
3:20 Ladbrokes World Hurdle Grade 1 3m
4:00 Byrne Group Plate (A Handicap Chase) Grade 3 2m5f
4:40 Fulke Walwyn Kim Muir Challenge Cup Handicap Chase (Amateur Riders) 3m1f110y
Entries for all Thursday’s races will be available 5 days in advance

CHELTENHAM – Fri 15 March

View all these cards on one page

1:33 JCB Triumph Hurdle Grade 1 2m1f
2:08 Vincent O´Brien County Handicap Hurdle Grade 3 2m1f
2:43 Albert Bartlett Novices´ Hurdle (Registered As The Spa Novices´ Hurdle Race) Grade 1 3m
3:23 Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup Chase Grade 1 3m2f110y
4:03 CGA Foxhunter Chase Challenge Cup 3m2f110y
4:43 Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys´ Handicap Hurdle 2m4f110y
5:18 Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Chase Challenge Cup (Handicap) Grade 3 2m110y
Entries for all Friday’s races will be available 5 days in advance

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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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