Cheltenham Festival: All eyes trained on Sprinter Sacre - 'the horse of a lifetime'
The stunning, record-breaker is set to be crowned the best in the Queen Mother Champion Chase at Cheltenham. Even the horse knows he's good
Sunday 10 March 2013
In one of sport's great natural arenas, before the matchless backdrop of the last rugged outpost of the Cotswolds, Cleeve Hill, there will this week be presented unscripted theatre in all its genres.
No emotion will remain untapped at Cheltenham, where 27 contests over four days will stretch hearts and minds for better and occasionally for worse. The prime sentiment will surely be excitement and that, too, can present in a myriad forms. A winning bet, a close finish. But there is nothing to beat the visceral thrill of seeing a horse who is not merely a champion, but one out of the ordinary.
Those who followed Frankel's effortless, imperious athletic superiority will testify to that. And for the jumping faithful, Sprinter Sacre is another of the stripe. The seven-year-old will start at long odds-on for the Queen Mother Champion Chase, the two-milers' crown, on Wednesday, but a solo tour de force by an unbackable favourite can touch the soul as much as a dogged head-to-head to the line.
Sprinter Sacre is the highest-rated chaser in training, has won all his seven outings over fences by an aggregate 95 lengths, has set three course records in his past six races and, to the relief of the marketeers, has filled the Festival superstar void left by the retired Kauto Star and the sidelined Big Buck's.
The man with the care and management of such a precious talent is Nicky Henderson, based on the Berkshire Downs at Seven Barrows. And though the responsibility brings a daily rollercoaster of worry and fulfilment, none can bow to the trainer in admiration of the horse. "He is just stunning," he said. "He is the model racehorse, with size and scope. And he is a dreadful show-off. He knows he's good, he knows he's good looking and he grows in stature as he struts and swanks in front of the crowd.
"He's much younger, of course, and not so skinny, but if he was a person he'd probably be the Mick Jagger I saw at the O2 Arena last year. So athletic, with such a swagger and presence. Definitely the wow factor."
The dark-brown gelding was bred in central France by farmer Christophe Masle. His very existence was something of an accident; the stallion that Masle had picked as a mate for his mare Fatima became indisposed and she had to be switched to an unproven horse called Network, with such serendipitous results.
Henderson is honest enough to admit that the first time he saw Sprinter Sacre he did not particularly notice him, even though the horse had taken first prize as a foal at the annual show and trade fair for young potential steeplechasers in the Nièvre region.
"He was there, and I was there," he said, "so I must have seen him, though he clearly did not register."
Sprinter Sacre eventually found his way to England as part of a £300,000 job lot of 20 unbroken youngsters sourced by agent David Minton for the 72-year-old property millionaire Raymond Mould and his wife Caroline, long-time patrons at Seven Barrows. "Then," added Henderson, "he really did stand out from the bunch. The second time he ran, I realised that we just might have a bit of a machine. And the first time we schooled him over fences he was so electric he was frightening."
Sprinter Sacre's progress through his novice chasing season included a contemptuous defeat of Cue Card in last year's Arkle Trophy. Wednesday will be his toughest senior test to date – his rivals are due to include two previous Champion Chase winners in Sizing Europe and his own stablemate Finian's Rainbow, and the unexposed Mail De Bievre – but he was foot-perfect in his dress rehearsal in January.
Henderson, 62, is the Festival meeting's leading trainer; his record seven winners last year brought his total to 46 in 27 years. But he has not taken the seasonal title since 1987 and one of this week's subplots will be his battle to catch the reigning champion, Paul Nicholls, with £6.12 million in prize money at stake.
The Seven Barrows team looks strong; it also includes My Tent Or Yours (Supreme Novices), Simonsig (Arkle Trophy) and Grandouet and Binocular (Champion Hurdle) on Tuesday; Captain Conan (Jewson Chase), Oscar Whisky (World Hurdle) and Riverside Theatre (Ryanair Chase) on Thursday; and Rolling Star (Triumph Hurdle) and Bobs Worth and Long Run (Gold Cup) on Friday.
But it is Sprinter Sacre, who stands 16.3 hands, has a fighting weight of 539kg and has earned the soubriquet "the big black aeroplane" because of the way he takes flight over a fence under Barry Geraghty, who carries the standard.
"There have been offers for him," added Henderson, "but he's not for sale. His owners have had some good ones in the past but this could be the horse of a lifetime."
Two a day for Cheltenham
This season Hurricane Fly (3.20) has seemed more like the horse who won the Champion Hurdle in 2011 and can become only the second – after Comedy Of Errors in 1975 – to regain the two-mile crown. A gamble was thwarted with defeat for Toner d'Oudaries (5.15) over hurdles at the meeting last year but compensation may await as a novice chaser.
There is no point in opposing Sprinter Sacre (3.20) in the Queen Mother Champion Chase, but the superstar's serial victim Sanctuaire could place if the ground lightens up. Novice hurdler Pont Alexandre (2.05) has swept all before him in Ireland and looks worthy of emulating this contest's last two winners, Simonsig and First Lieutenant.
In the absence of Big Buck's, the World Hurdle is wide open and it would be justice of a sort should Reve De Sivola (3.20), trounced by the great stayer at the start of the season but unbeaten since, pick up the baton. Look out for Argocat (1.30) in the novices' chase; he lacks the flashy profile of better-fancied rivals but his each-way price will reflect that.
Sir Des Champs (3.20) has been beaten only twice over obstacles and never at Cheltenham. He can become Ireland's first Gold Cup winner since War Of Attrition, in the same Michael O'Leary colours, in 2006. In the meeting's finale Rody (5.15) has been creeping up the handicap but may still have enough in hand for a bold show.
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