Aintree: Sprinter Sacre has to go extra distance to prove prowess

Chris McGrath assesses the remarkable talent of the favourite for featured Melling Chase

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The Independent Online

It is not just his animal dynamism, as he bounds away from his inferiors. It is still more elemental than that. Those who watch Sprinter Sacre strolling round the parade ring at Aintree today may sense something terrible about his beauty, about his sheer, preening prowess.

As he launches himself towards a fence, he so exults in his physical glamour that he seems to soar dangerously close to the sun. Every time he leaves the ground, his very self-regard invites a mute dread in those who stand breathlessly by. He breaks all fetters not just through his athleticism but also through his innocence.

Never mind, then, all this tension and controversy over the adjacent Grand National course. On the eve of the race that most distils the defining dilemma of steeplechasing – between the innate, exuberant purpose of a thoroughbred and the challenges laid in his path by mankind – the name of Sprinter Sacre obtains a suitably sacred quality.

Sure enough, his trainer can barely bring himself to watch a steeplechaser already hailed as among the most magnetic of the modern era. Nicky Henderson knows that expectations are now so high, following eight immaculate performances over fences, that anything less than another spectacular rout in today’s Melling Chase will be treated as an anti-climax.

After witnessing the horse’s latest exhibition – and that is very much the word – in the Champion Chase at Cheltenham last month, Henderson had tears of relief in his eyes. Describing Sprinter Sacre as “the most appalling show-off”, he devotes himself to teaching the horse the hazards of complacency. And he would perhaps be grateful if the rest of us could recognise them, too. On the face of it, to describe the Melling Chase as “the race of the season” might seem only to reiterate the congenital excitability of the Turf. But it is irritation with precisely the same weakness that warrants some such billing for the new challenge now facing Sprinter Sacre. For this is a sport that seldom hesitates to anoint a new champion as one without precedent, at least in his discipline. Similar raptures even a year or two beforehand are routinely disowned as callow misjudgements. You never know, some day people may even distance themselves from the claims made for Frankel. For now, they hasten to play down the stature of Kauto Star in the steeplechasing pantheon as they carve Sprinter Sacre as a new paragon.

That is why his appearance today comes as such an edifying surprise. Rather than perform a lap of honour round Punchestown, as originally proposed, Henderson and his patrons have elected to raise the bar. Those who supervised Frankel’s career waited until it was almost over to try him over a longer distance and they seemed perfectly satisfied to see him beat the same horses time and again – rejecting, for instance, the opportunity of testing him overseas. In contrast, we should learn a good deal more about Sprinter Sacre’s capacities today.

Not only does he step up in distance, having hitherto shown murderous speed over two miles, he also meets just about the toughest opposition available over an extra half-mile. If he can saunter away from Flemenstar and Cue Card with all his customary swagger, then he will go a long way towards substantiating all the heady talk about him as an epoch-making talent.

It is worth recording immediate caveats about both his main rivals. Cue Card is so effective round Cheltenham – as he confirmed with a dominant performance from the front in the Ryanair Chase last month – that this must be counted an “away” fixture. Moreover he has not had long to absorb a seriously generous effort at the Festival. Flemenstar, meanwhile, must not only travel from Ireland for the first time but also overcome the setback that ruled him out of Cheltenham.

All things being equal, however, these horses between them do look eligible to discover any chink in Sprinter Sacre’s armour. True, softer ground would probably help Flemenstar, but he won at Fairyhouse on spring ground last year and his zesty style should in principle be ideally suited to this track. He has established himself unequivocally as top-class and – in contrast with Sizing Europe, the venerable runner-up to Sprinter Sacre at Cheltenham – is only now entering his prime.

Cue Card’s Festival form was meanwhile boosted by the success of his victim there, First Lieutenant, on yesterday’s card. Sprinter Sacre has thrashed Cue Card over two miles, but it would be wrong to imagine that the sharp, flat nature of this circuit will limit the demands on a horse’s stamina. Indeed, with three such energetic animals in opposition, they seem guaranteed to go a hectic lick today.

There will be no hiding place, in other words: Sprinter Sacre was beaten by a relative nobody the only time he tried this trip in his novice hurdling days.

But Henderson seems confident. “We were talking to his breeders after Cheltenham,” he said, “and looking back through his dam’s side there is stamina everywhere. They can’t believe he has been running over two.”

Even so, it should always be remembered – whatever the superficial impression as Sprinter Sacre hurtled clear on the bridle – that no horse can ever win a championship race by 19 lengths without eating into his reserves. Master Minded won the 2008 Champion Chase by the same margin before being turned over at Aintree.

For the first time since he went over fences, it seems likely that Sprinter Sacre may have to really step on the gas today. It would not only be hasty to make assumptions about what might happen next, it would cheapen everything he has already done. Henderson knows that, of course, and fair play to him for risking an experiment. “We’ve got to try something new,” he said. “At least we’ll find something else about him.”

Invincible sprinter: Sacre’s winning runs

13/3/13: Cheltenham

(Two miles; good/soft ground) - Won

26/1/13: Cheltenham

(Two miles; heavy) - Won

8/12/12: Sandown

(Two miles; soft) - Won

14/4/12: Aintree

(Two miles; good) - Won

13/3/12: Cheltenham

(Two miles; good- good/soft) - Won

17/02/12: Newbury

(Two miles & one furlong; good/soft) - Won

27/12/11: Kempton

(Two miles; good) - Won

9/12/11: Doncaster

(Two miles; good) - Won