Whatever arguments might suggest themselves today, when the bigger fences push the debate to its margins, it would be difficult for anyone to have watched its latest champion yesterday and propose an end to steeplechasing.
As Sprinter Sacre met a new challenge with all his usual gusto and flair, only the meanest witness to his greatness would question why thoroughbreds should be reared and raised to explore – and share – such exhilaration.
Unbeaten in eight previous starts over fences, Sprinter Sacre was asked in the Melling Chase to stretch his speed over another half-mile for the first time since his hurdling days. And nor would this be some hollow examination, against horses so inferior that they could never discover any deficiency in his stamina.
He was challenged by Flemenstar, who had been unable to test his status as the most exciting jumper in Ireland at the Festival, following a setback, but duly arrived with an advantage of freshness; and also by Cue Card, whose own dominant exhibition at Cheltenham had confirmed him to be top-class at this kind of intermediate distance.
Both took their share of the lead, Cue Card first until a series of rather hairy jumps invited Flemenstar forward. The Irish raider responded with some leaps so extravagant that they made Sprinter Sacre himself seem merely slick and nimble, as he eagerly tracked the pace on the outside. Finian’s Rainbow was hanging in there pretty well, and actually took it up as Flemenstar began to struggle four out. But both would soon leave Cue Card to throw down the gauntlet, turning in. Briefly, the pride of Dorset still seemed full of gusto – but then Joe Tizzard looked across and saw Barry Geraghty coasting forwards on the odds-on favourite.
Afterwards Tizzard pronounced Sprinter Sacre “an aeroplane”. And, having strolled into the lead between the last two fences, the way he jumped the last hardly suggested that he was reaching the limit of his energy. He glided four and a half lengths clear of Cue Card, with a yawning gap back to the disappointing Flemenstar.
“He did what we thought he’d do,” Geraghty said. “He was brilliant. I could have done with them going a little quicker – he travelled a bit too well – because I had to take him back a few times and couldn’t really use his jumping.”
However free through the race, Sprinter Sacre confirmed himself so superior to the present elite – and for once let us suspend fatuous debate as to how he might measure up against paragons of the past – that you could easily imagine him extending even to three miles, at least round a sharp track like Kempton on Boxing Day. As Colin Tizzard, trainer of Cue Card, put it: “I don’t think we’ll be rushing to take him on again; he’d win over any trip, wouldn’t he?”
For now, his trainer dismissed any such thoughts. “I haven’t had a chance to talk to Barry at any length,” Nicky Henderson said. “But he said that is probably as far as he needs to go. I don’t think we’ll be thinking of the King George at this particular moment.You’ve seen how good he is over two miles. He’s so electric at that trip, why go and press something you don’t have to? We did it with Remittance Man, and he nearly won it, and you might get away with it, with a horse of this talent. But I think we’ll stick to what we know.”
Mention of Remittance Man gave substance to Henderson’s acknowledgement that his return to the top of his profession has been hastened by the best horse to have entered his care. “I’ve finally got to admit he’s top of my pile, but I’m not going to compare him to other people’s horses,” he said.
Sprinter Sacre could not be more precious to Henderson; nor could the trainer be more aware of the precarious nature of his calling. He evoked the memory of Killiney, killed in a race at Ascot. “We all thought he was going to be one of the great horses of all time, and we know what happened to him,” he said. “I’m just the curator of a spectacular horse.”
Quality saturates the entire Seven Barrows stable, of course, and Henderson’s serene progress to the trainers’ championship was accelerated by three other winners on the card. These included My Tent Or Yours, who shrugged off a hard race at the Festival to make light of an easy task in the opener.
His owner, J P McManus, has another of the season’s top novice hurdlers in At Fishers Cross, who coped readily with the faster ground to extend his unbeaten spree in the John Smith’s Novice Hurdle. In the marvelling words of his jockey, Tony McCoy, Rebecca Curtis “has turned this horse inside out”.
There was also a dazzling return to form from Dynaste in the Mildmay Novices’ Chase. Now he really does look an ideal type for the King George – but that is strictly on the basis that Sprinter Sacre does not show up.
No fewer than 25 of the 29 jockeys who lined up for the Topham, incidentally, were given a one-day ban for disobeying the starter. Liam Treadwell was spared, as he was in hospital having X-rays; otherwise only Brian Harding , Tom O’Brien and Ruby Walsh were exonerated. Though frequently implored not to head off too hard, in the build-up to this meeting, they forced the tape twice. If they want to share the evangelical work of Sprinter Sacre, they had better show a little more restraint in the big one today.