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

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

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

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

£35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'