Hearts, one real and others more elusively metaphorical in character, were the talk of the tracks yesterday. It was confirmed that Sprinter Sacre, sensationally pulled up at Kempton on Friday when long odds-on to take his unbeaten run over fences to 11, has a cardiac problem not uncommon in racehorses of his large size and exceptional ability.
With a decisive victory in the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown, his stablemate Bobs Worth showed that, despite a resounding flop on his seasonal return to action last month, his will to win and ability remain intact. And their trainer Nicky Henderson's pulse is surely now beating steady again.
The Lexus Chase was make or break for Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Bobs Worth, who had trailed in a dismal sixth behind Cue Card, Dynaste and Boxing Day's King George VI Chase hero Silviniaco Conti in the Betfair Chase at Haydock on his first run since his glory day in March. After his defeat of Ireland's best, headed by First Lieutenant, he is now clear favourite, as short as 2-1, to retain his Festival crown.
Henderson, the reigning champion of a profession that so frequently racks the emotions, is never one to keep his under wraps, and his relief as he welcomed back Bobs Worth and his rider, Barry Geraghty, was typically apparent.
"This wasn't just an up after the down of Sprinter Sacre," he said. "When Bobs Worth got thumped like that at Haydock it frightened the living daylights out of all of us, and to get him back like this is mega. He's picked himself up after a horror run and put himself right back in the Gold Cup ball park."
Bobs Worth made the trip to Ireland largely at Geraghty's insistence. "I wasn't happy about the weather or the ground and would have given anything two days ago to take him out of the race," admitted Henderson, "but Barry was keen, as he believed he'd get better ground here than anywhere in England. And after only four or five fences I could see the horse was enjoying himself." The three-mile test at the Co Dublin track puts more of an emphasis on stamina than that at much sharper Haydock. As Rubi Ball blazed the trail Bobs Worth, the 11-4 joint favourite, stayed handy, and though he came to the last only third as First Lieutenant, who had jumped particularly well, took over from the leader, he stayed on strongly to take the Grade One prize by a length and a half. The other joint-favourite, Sir Des Champs, second in the latest Gold Cup, finished fourth.
"There were some good reasons why he got beat at Haydock," said Geraghty of the honest little eight-year-old he raised as a youngster and knows so well, "like the track and the very soft ground. I was looking this morning for reasons he might get beat today, and to be honest I couldn't find many.
"They went steady enough, but it was a proper race, hell for leather from the last. He's not just about stamina, he's got class and pace too, and he was able to show it. The ground was beautiful, and halfway up the run-in I knew he'd get up."
Bobs Worth is not likely to be seen again until the Gold Cup. "We'll take him home and decide what to do," said Henderson, "but I suspect it will be nothing until March. And we've already seen how he loves the Cheltenham hill."
Whether Sprinter Sacre, who spent yesterday having tests, will be able to defend his two-mile Festival title remains to be seen. The seven-year-old is suffering from an irregular heartbeat, a problem the former Gold Cup winner Denman – likewise a superior athlete with a massive physique and unusually large heart – also once encountered, and recovered from. "It may stabilise on its own," said Henderson, "or if not, medicines and technology will come into employment."
Guts as well as heart were the order of the day for the Welsh Grand National, a three-and-three-quarter- mile slog in the mud. Victory went to the locally owned 20-1 shot Mountainous, who gave small-time trainer Richard Lee a second success in the Chepstow showpiece in four runnings as he held on by a head and half a length under Paul Moloney from the Paul Nicholls stablemates Hawkes Point and the most gallant top-weight, Tidal Bay.