Sprinter Sacre: the perfect racehorse in every way
There are only a select few racehorses who a multiple champion trainer can describe with no doubt in their mind as “perfect”. But in Sprinter Sacre Nicky Henderson had one who utterly and absolutely deserves that description.
He is a stunning specimen of a horse. His huge frame covered by a slick dark coat, but if he did not take your breath away by just watching him in the parade ring then he certainly did when watching him on the track.
It was not just the record-breaking distances he would win by, recording unprecedentedly high ratings in the process, but the authoritative manner in which he would crush the best opposition around time after time.
With every mind-blowing performance, Sprinter Sacre’s fan club signed up new members and racing enthusiasts in Britain and Ireland would come out in force to just get one glimpse of this horse of a lifetime.
Even from the start Nicky Henderson saw something special. Sprinter Sacre arrived as part of a job lot sourced by David Minton, but his very first steps at the historic Seven Barrows made a big impression. He was mucked out by a young Nico de Boinville – little did he know just how big a day that same horse would give him.
Henderson recalls: “On day one he walked into the yard as if he owned it, he always had that look about him. I wouldn’t say we knew he was special but he was a very swanky boy. It was obvious from the first few times we worked him that he was going to be pretty good, too.
“He was the most fantastic-looking horse – it was pure sex appeal. If you had to envisage the model of a racehorse who had class, quality and confirmation then it was him. It’s very rare when you see one who looks like the perfect racehorse, and seldom do they turn out to be the perfect racehorse as well. That’s exactly what he was.”
But he was no overnight sensation on the racecourse. He won two ordinary bumpers and novice hurdles, and at the Cheltenham Festival in 2011 AP McCoy had his one and only chance to ride Sprinter Sacre. Although the pair only finished third, the 20-time champion jockey advised Henderson to consider giving the son of Network wind surgery – it proved a revolutionary move.
The 2011-12 season was to be centred around a novice chase campaign for Sprinter Sacre, and by now his homework had scaled new heights.
Henderson says: “He was always brilliant as a chaser. He was an absolute natural over fences from the first time we schooled him and it was to the point that it was frightening. It remained that way all the way through his career.
“I was told it was fun from whoever was riding him, he was quick, fast and precise. When they attack it like he did and stand off from a long way they think it’s all so easy. I’d hate watching him, but I imagine being on him would give you some special thrill.”
From there Caroline and Raymond Mould’s star would go on to dominate in the two-mile chasing ranks. Emphatic wins at Doncaster, Kempton and then in open Graded company at Newbury made him an odds-on shot for the Arkle and one of the most exciting horses in training.
“By the time we’d got to the Arkle it was more a sense of expecting what was going to happen and from then it got more and more like that,” adds Henderson.
“For us it was quite terrifying, we all knew what was going to happen and everyone only wanted that one thing. If he wasn’t brilliant we’d be thinking what went wrong and that’s a horrible situation to be in. When it was over it was lovely.”
From that Grade 1 breakthrough, Sprinter Sacre would go on to dominate at the top level with victory at Aintree at the end of his novice campaign before cruising clear to take the Tingle Creek and Clarence House Chase, with the latter in 2013 held at Cheltenham.
He was a red-hot banker for the Champion Chase, sent off at 1-4 on the day. Expectation was already sky high, but he raised the bar once again. With a staggering 19-length victory, he earned a Racing Post Rating of 190 which remains the highest in history.
Sprinter Sacre would then match that rating – described by the gurus as “ridiculously good” – at Aintree in the Melling Chase before completing a rare but extraordinary hat-trick at Punchestown. That five-and-a-half success over Sizing Europe was a particularly special day for his trainer.
“I always said one day I’d bring him to Ireland and that was one of the great days, it was fantastic,” Henderson reflects. “He was given a welcome that you couldn’t possibly believe.
“Ireland is a country of passionate horsemen, they love good horses. This was an English-trained horse who was bred in France but they adored him, and that’s breaking all of the rules. The reception he got after he won there was incredible – you’d have had to be there to know and I always remember that.
“The people were so good for the rest of the week thanking me for bringing him, and I think it gave a lot of people an enormous amount of pleasure.
“There’s not many horses who can do Cheltenham, Aintree and Punchestown, but he wasn’t at his best in Ireland.
“He always looked like he’d won his races easily, but even a horse like Sprinter Sacre has to put an awful lot into it. He’s running on pure adrenaline and the thrill of it, but you still need to put everything into it – even if you’re winning by 20 lengths.
“In those two years you knew in your own mind that he was technically unbeatable. There were some good horses around at that time, but he was just simply in a different league. It would’ve been amazing if anything could’ve beaten him then when he was at his best.”
But from invincible it became inconceivable, as Sprinter Sacre would endure a dark day at Kempton. From dominating he was defeated.
After being pulled-up he was found to have an atrial fibrillation, known as an irregular heartbeat, and he headed to Newmarket’s Rossdales Equine Hospital in an attempt to save his racing career.
After 386 days his physical condition had improved, but it was the mental scar which he had still yet to overcome.
A three-length second to the progressive Dodging Bullets had Sprinter Sacre’s many adoring fans believing he was back, but it proved not to be.
He was pulled-up at Cheltenham and beaten again when second at Sandown.
“It was horrible,” the trainer admits. “We knew we had the best horse in the country and Ireland, but something was going badly wrong.
“At Kempton it went wrong with his heart and it was a dreadful long road back which included a few disappointing runs.”
Henderson adds: “There was enough bane for retirement and plenty had seen enough to think that was what we ought to do, but we’re an obstinate lot so we turned him away for one summer and promised to only ask him again if we were really sure he was back to his best. Sadly, Raymond Mould had died, but Caroline was supportive all of the way through.
“We were seeing the grassshoots again and we had to do different things, it was all about rebuilding confidence. We had many chats with Celia Marr who had been looking after him and his heart, and she said the drawbacks to the horses that have the aches and fibrillations is that it’s not a nice experience and you can never know what type of scar that left. There’s no doubt it did and that’s why he wasn’t the same horse for a while. Some will come back from it, some won’t. So for us it was all about regaining confidence.
"When he was at his very brilliant best only Simonsig could work with him. But going into that season he wasn’t working like he was used to, but you could see he was coming back. What we did was find a horse he could boss on the gallops to get the belief in himself and to teach him that it’s all good fun. Gradually that confidence came back in him and us.”
The patience and all the hard work would pay off in a special day at Cheltenham in November.
The Grade 2 Shloer Chase is never usually a race which properly electrifies a crowd, but when Sprinter Sacre roared back to form on a Sunday in November 2015 it certainly did.
“The day he returned in the Shloer was an extraordinary day” adds Henderson. “He had to win that day otherwise we’d have called it a day – it had to happen. I think a lot of people, myself included, said they’d never heard an atmosphere like that at Cheltenham outside of the festival. They went wild and it was fantastic.
“That day meant an awful lot – they’d been plenty ready to criticise us. We and he needed it just as much and it was just a fantastic day.”
From then, what seemed an impossible dream seemed a little bit more likely. The strapping chaser would return to that Kempton scene but enjoy a different result – winning the Desert Orchid Chase in gutsy fashion – and then it was all about a clash with Ireland’s next best thing, Un De Sceaux, at the festival.
He tracked his key rival throughout, jumping emphatically under a patient stalking ride from De Boinville.
On the swing for home, his move was made and the crowd roared as he nosed ahead with only the famous home straight stopping him from history. With two giant leaps he grew his advantage as the grandstands erupted with each and every stride.
Sprinter Sacre had completed the most incredible comeback.
“That was completely different to something you’ll ever experience,” the trainer reflects on his fourth of six winners in the race. “Emotions were ferocious, there was relief but it was a staggering performance, too. I don’t think anyone expected him to comeback to that level.
“I will just never ever forget it. It was just this haze of noise and the crowd were unbelievable – I don’t think we’ll see a horse get a reception like that for a long time. It was highly charged. He grabbed the headlines, tugged the heartstrings in proper style.”
Sprinter Sacre would go on to prove his Champion Chase fairytale was no fluke with one final demoltion job at Sandown – a 15-length victory over an eight-year-old Un De Sceaux, with former Champion Chase winners Dodging Bullets and Sire De Grugy a further length and seven lengths behind.
While at the time we didn’t know it was to be the last time we would see Sprinter Sacre on the racetrack, it was a fitting end for one of the greats as he saunted clear of quality rivals to a packed grandstand roaring him home.
Sprinter Sacre was initially kept in training with anticipation building for a clash with new chase sensation Douvan, but a tendon injury picked up in November meant he was retired and he is now enjoying his time with Vicky Roberts in Gloucestershire.
While there may never be another one like Sprinter Sacre, Henderson did not have to wait long for his next superstar two-mile chaser. Only seven months later Altior would commence his phenomenal career over fences at Kempton and, who knows, maybe in 2021 the baton will be passed on to Shishkin.
“It was an incredible story and that year was an amazing one. I mean for us, the following year Altior took over and he’s still going. Now we’re lucky enough to have Shishkin, too, all very good two-milers.
“I never thought Altior would fill the shoes and Shishkin has still got a while to go. We’re very lucky here, I can’t quite believe it.”
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