Cheltenham Festival: Sizing Europe no match for sizzling Sprinter Sacre

Nicky Henderson’s rising star dominates rivals in Queen Mother Champion Chase

The idea had been to establish just how good this impossibly glamorous creature might be. Ludicrously, after seeing Sprinter Sacre dismiss his toughest opponent yet with all his usual élan, we still don’t know – and it is becoming difficult to imagine just how anyone is supposed to find out. At this rate, they are going to have to devise a different set of rules for the winner of the Queen Mother Champion Chase. Strap a barrel to his rider, perhaps, or give the others a 30-second start. As things stand, his performance here suggests that the mantle of Frankel, as an idol of the modern Turf, has been passed to a steeplechaser.

Certainly Sprinter Sacre has the flair to transcend the boundaries of what can seem an arcane sport. Appreciation of his animal swagger does not require even the most rudimentary expertise. His sheer pulchritude is matched by such effervescence and animation that his leap over the last fence seemed to span the entire Festival. It no longer seemed to matter whether or not the Gold Cup might yield a vintage spectacle. Nothing could now displace Sprinter Sacre as the defining performer of the week – and of a sport that had reckoned itself bereft when Kauto Star retired last year. The odds were so short that no venality, for once, infected the acclaim of the stands. Everyone was simply exulting in their privilege.

After seven wins in seven starts over fences, they had seen the bar raised for Sprinter Sacre. Though now 11 years old, Sizing Europe set a benchmark of undiminished class and enthusiasm. Twice a winner over this course, and a noble second last year, the Irish horse jumped and travelled superbly as Mail De Bievre blazed a trail, and was prompted to throw down the gauntlet as the leader blundered at the last ditch. And it was here that Sprinter Sacre intimated his mortality for the first and only time. “It wasn’t really a mistake,” Barry Geraghty said afterwards. “He knew what he was doing. He was long into it, really long, and he put down on me. But off that dead ground he was telling me that was the thing to do.”

Geraghty then let his mount glide alongside Sizing Europe, and the pair of them instantly opened up by a dozen lengths or more on the rest. Now came the moment of truth.

It was settled with brutal efficiency, as the flourish of a scimitar. Suddenly Sizing Europe was off the bridle, and Sprinter Sacre hurtling clear with Geraghty motionless. Any vestige of resistance was extinguished as the veteran stumbled on a path across the track, but he regrouped gallantly to confine the margin between them to 19 lengths, with Wishfull Thinking claiming footnote status in third.

The responsibility of supervising this breathtaking talent is not lost on Nicky Henderson, now trainer of 49 Festival winners. “I hope the public did enjoy watching him because I’m not sure I did!” he said. “You sort of enjoy it, but they still have to do it. There are fences to jump, and you have to be careful because he does find it so ridiculously easy. He loves to attack and you do worry complacency might creep into it.”

Henderson accepts that he has never trained a chaser like this. “He has an aura about him,” he said. “He knows he’s good. He doesn’t hide it under a bushel, doesn’t do anything by halves. It’s the way he lives. Barry enjoys it, the horse enjoys it, and I hate it. But it’s fun afterwards. He’s nearly the perfect racehorse. We were well aware that anything bar stunning wouldn’t keep people happy. But that was stunning.”

Sprinter Sacre may now proceed to Punchestown next month but it may not be easy to find anyone prepared to take him on. That was once Moscow Flyer’s stamping ground, and Geraghty always shows decorous respect for his experiences on that horse. But he is finding it increasingly hard to resist the consensus that few jockeys of his generation have ever had such a conveyance.

“I have ridden some brilliant horses over the years,” he said. “But the ease and grace he does it with sets him apart. He has such power and scope, and that gives him all the time he needs. He’s like Pele on the ball, doing it all so easily because his speed and power and skill gave him time. I have never ridden anything so natural.”

Henry De Bromhead saluted Sizing Europe as his own “horse of a lifetime”, and should be proud of his own role, but was under no illusions as he surveyed the majestic winner in the unsaddling enclosure. “We had a go and served it up to him,” the Co Waterford trainer said. “But we’ve come out second best. He’s a phenomenon.”