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Saturday, 20 October, 2018

When the champ came out fighting in front of adoring public

In this extract from the Racing Post Annual, Steve Dennis charts an epic revival

Sprinter Sacre and Nico de Boinville en route to a glorious comeback
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The champ sat on his stool, his head low, his mind in a daze, blood from a cut above his eye running down his face like tears. Another round like the last one and it was all over. His cornerman moved in close, whispered in his ear. “Come on, champ. We can still win this. We don’t quit in the corner. You’re the king of the world, remember?” He reached for the towel and a gasp rose around the ring until the crowd saw he wasn’t going to throw it in but use it to wipe the blood gently from his fighter’s face. “Come on champ, one more round. Just like old times.” And the bell rang, and the champ stood up.

Sprinter Sacre had been in the wars. First the health goes, then the reputation follows. In the summer of 2013 he had a ten-race winning streak over fences to his name and a Racing Post Rating that elevated him to greatness. Before the year was out his career had been wrecked by a heart problem, atrial fibrillation, a fast and erratic heartbeat. He spent a year in the wilderness, and when he finally returned to action he resembled a ghost from the past, the same name but not the same horse. He was all washed-up, a has-been, glass-jawed, heavy-legged, easy to hit. Finished.

“We don’t give up easily in our neck of the woods,” says trainer Nicky Henderson. “I thought he ran okay at Sandown at the back-end [of the 2014-15 season]. Our biggest hope was his vet, Celia Marr. She said that what happened at Kempton, the heart problem, would leave a mental scar, it wasn’t a nice experience.

“So how long does it take a horse to get over it? It can take a long time. So maybe another summer might clear his memory of what happened.

“There was no pressure from Caroline [Mould], she was brilliant at a very tough time for her, the first season after [husband] Raymond died, but Sprinter’s rather ceased to be simply her horse and is pretty much public property really. That’s why the downhill slide was so horrible because we were dealing with something that wasn’t entirely ours.

“We did say that he would have to tell us he was all right, it would have to happen on a racecourse. If that hadn’t happened, that would have been it. Retirement. And some would have said about time too. But there was always just that something there, something that said ‘keep trying’.”

The champ returned home to Lambourn after his summer holiday and Henderson’s horseman’s heart lifted immediately. One day, somewhere in the future, there would be a television montage to the tune of that hymn to indefatigability The Impossible Dream, and it was here that Henderson began to dream.

“He did look different when he came in, he looked fantastic, he’d had a great summer. The previous year he didn’t look like he used to look. And he is this amazing specimen. He’s a male model.

“The whole thing was for him to regain his confidence, his self-belief. That was at the heart of everything we did before he ran again. He came back to us looking like he was in a better place with himself and he did a lot of long, slow work on our new Wexford sand gallop, which seemed to help him a lot, he obviously enjoyed it, it built him up well.

“And then, on the grass, from mid-October, we purposely did much less fast work with him. The horses who were leading him, or following him, we took them down a whole two degrees, lesser horses, not horses he’d been working with before. I didn’t want him going out with the A-team – I wanted him to feel like he was the boss again. Go and murder that, boy, and feel better about yourself.

“It was all about not stressing him in any way. Put two ordinary horses together and Sprinter comes along behind, all he does is cruise on past them. Normally I would hate the idea of anyone thinking they’ve won a gallop, a gallop isn’t about that, it’s about trying to make horses feel good. They’ve got to do some work but complement each other at the same time – two horses finishing nicely together, I love that. But this was different, so he sat in behind two lesser horses and went easily past them. We tricked him, basically.”

It’s an old trick. Find a patsy, and let the champ knock him over. Sign him up to the ‘Bum of the Month’ club and let him loose, let his ego swell at the same rate as his muscles. Before you know it, the champ’s feeling like a champ. And the gym work goes on apace.

“We worked on his jumping too. I mean, he’d always been so spectacular, and his jumping was never a problem but after his time off it was never as slick as it had been, he wasn’t as deadly over his fences. His mind wasn’t right, and maybe his body wasn’t right either. We had to build them both up again.

“Tony Gilmour is our ‘back man’ – I call him that, but he’s much more than that really. [Orthopaedic expert] Buffy Shirley-Beavan was a great help too. It was about building up the muscles in his loins and back – behind the saddle he was missing a bit.

“The previous season I hadn’t been desperate to take his rugs off at the races, I wasn’t particularly proud of the way he looked, but when it came to the Shloer I couldn’t wait to get his rugs off and let everyone have a good look. And it was worth looking at. The last time he’d looked as good as that was at Punchestown, before the problems started.”

The Shloer Chase at Cheltenham in mid-November, a race that bears the name of a fizzy drink, would be the test of whether Sprinter Sacre still possessed his own effervescence. He had been in the doldrums long enough to have lost his penalty for winning Grade 1 races and he was receiving weight from horses who would not have seen which way he went when he was in his pomp. It would be a good test, an eliminator before the old champ could begin to consider a crack at the title again. Another knockdown, though, would be the end.

“We knew he was looking good, and we knew his work was good, but of course we hadn’t asked him any kind of question. I didn’t want to. It had to happen now, and it would have been retirement day if it hadn’t gone right.”

It happened. The old slugger, fed on a diet of easy meat, his body in fighting trim, his ego bolstered by all those undemanding bouts at home, rolled his shoulders and rolled back the years. The dream was not looking so impossible.

“It all happened in ten strides, like it used to. They were going up the hill and suddenly he took off, jumped the fourth last, and was gone. I told Nico [de Boinville] that if at any stage the horse wanted to get on with it, let him. Don’t say whoa, say go. Don’t disappoint him. It was just a bit further out than I’d wanted, because of the fitness aspect.

“He went into the fence three lengths down, came out three lengths up. Gone. Goodbye. That’s the moment I knew he was back. What a moment.”

When Sprinter Sacre returned to the winner’s enclosure a 14-length winner he was greeted like a prodigal son. To many there it felt similar to a festival welcome, but this outpouring was born simply of sheer relief. Henderson, who confesses with a wide smile his propensity to easy tears, was not the only one fumbling for his handkerchief. The public had their horse again, and so did he. It was time to step back, regroup, breathe.

Read the full story in the Racing Post Annual 2017, available now at £12.99

We had not asked him any kind of question. It had to happen now, and it would have been retirement day if it had not gone right

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