Sprinter to make the spine tingle
Saturday's Sportingbet Tingle Creek Chase is clearly a mouth-watering affair, with purported wonder horse Sprinter Sacre facing Sanctuaire, a hugely-talented rogue who might just have turned a corner since being asked to jump a fence.
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Excitement therefore seems guaranteed but what exactly should we expect from the race? How might Sanctuaire be able to overcome what most would deem a class bridge between himself and Sprinter Sacre? Does that bridge even exist?
Our Ben Coley tries to solve the riddle.
THE BETTER HORSE?
Ask the punter in the shop which is the more talented horse, and you'll find most will reply with Sprinter Sacre.
Nicky Henderson's facile Arkle winner has the form to match his reputation and has done as expected in improving further still for a switch to fences.
Five wins in as many starts (including a pair of Grade One successes) achieved by cumulative distances of 66 lengths and the way in which he has attacked his obstacles has rightly had connections gushing over his natural talent.
The British Horseracing Authority handicapper has him at 169, fully 20lb further up the ladder than the rating he achieved when third in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle, and higher than that awarded to Kauto Star after he won this race some seven years ago.
But what might surprise some is that Sanctuaire - who was rated a pound superior in a hurdles career which admittedly was extended beyond the novice stage - is rated 166 in his own right.
His form over fences has been achieved in more comfortable fashion at a generally lower level, but he had a Grade One winner some 17 lengths adrift when winning the Grade Two Celebration Chase here in the spring in a performance which at face value was top-drawer.
Quite simply, if both horses repeat the very best form that they have shown it could leave them close enough for this race to come down to tactics and fluency over the obstacles, which in turn suggests they should be closer in the betting.
That being said, Sprinter Sacre does seem the horse most likely to produce his best. Simply put, 11 starts show nine wins, with his two defeats relatively easily explained.
First and foremost, Nicky Henderson always insisted he'd come into his own over fences, so it's little surprise that both defeats have come over the smaller obstacles.
Perhaps the most expensive and surprising of them was when this horse was beaten by the smart but short of top class Frascati Park at Ascot, his sole try over two and a half miles and his first run over hurdles, one which came after a nine-month absence.
Retrospectively, the trip was too much at that stage of his career, a problem accentuated by the fact that it was his first start after an absence, and in the circumstances he ran well.
The most famous defeat of course was the Supreme Novices' Hurdle, when Sprinter Sacre travelled like the best horse in the race but weakened to third on the climb to the line.
Again, his lack of experience at that stage of his career is a worthy excuse for a horse who was still growing into his substantial frame at the time.
Sanctuaire on the other hand is a rather more complex character and is therefore more difficult to assess.
Although three from three over fences, his hurdles career shows moments of brilliance - such as when he hosed up in the Fred Winter and toyed with Grands Crus at Taunton - and moments of madness, like when he all but refused to race in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton.
That he's not only run in but been well beaten in more than one handicap underlines the fact that while Sprinter Sacre's rise through the ranks has been relatively straightforward and not in the least unexpected, Sanctuaire's career has been up and down.
His occasionally wayward tendencies perhaps explain why he's been ridden from the front over fences, given the opportunity to enjoy himself and attack straight from the start. Sanctuaire has clearly relished such freedom, but will he get it on Saturday?
Barry Geraghty is well aware of the test that awaits Sprinter Sacre and is unlikely to allow Sanctuaire the sort of lead he's been given so far over fences.
But in turn this presents a problem: On his first try over Sandown's tough fences, will Sprinter Sacre be able to jump with the aplomb to which we've become accustomed?
At a higher speed, he's more likely to be knocked out of a rhythm than would perhaps ordinarily be the case, and such an error at Sandown could prove pivotal in the outcome of the race, especially on ground set to ride softer than ideal.
The flip-side is that having what appears a guaranteed pace angle should allow Sprinter Sacre to settle on his first start of the season, when it's reasonable to expect that he'll be somewhat fresh.
For Ruby Walsh, there seems no option but to force the issue. Perhaps in time we'll be talking about jockeys finding a way to beat Sprinter Sacre, but for now Walsh's priority must surely be to play to the undoubted strengths of his own horse.
The inclination is to believe that while form in the book has little between these two horses, Sprinter Sacre is the one with the greater potential.
That and his tactical versatility help to explain why he's a strong favourite, for all that his chief rival has valuable experience over Sandown's fences.
The make-up of Sanctuaire helps to make this such a fascinating race from a tactical perspective, but Sprinter Sacre looks capable of rising to any challenge set.
If he gets into an early rhythm, expect Geraghty to sit within five lengths of Sanctuaire aboard Sprinter Sacre before joining him at the Pond Fence and galloping clear to further demonstrate that we have a new star to follow in the two-mile chasing division.
What remains to be seen is whether the Nicholls horse has simply taken time to mature mentally, and if that's the case there may well be a good deal more to come from him too.
His profile seems less exciting but should he win this we'll have confirmation that today's Sanctuaire is simply a different animal to that which frustrated punters so frequently over hurdles.