Cheltenham legend Sprinter Sacre

Festival Fever | Timeform Cheltenham Greats: Sprinter Sacre

Every Thursday we look back on the career of a Cheltenham Festival legend and this week, Timeform and David Ord pay tribute to Sprinter Sacre.

He didn’t need the 2016 swansong to cement his status as a Festival legend – but it completed a remarkable story.

Sprinter Sacre won his first ten races over fences and dominated the two-mile division like only the true greats can.

The run included victory in the 2012 Arkle.

It was a performances of the ages, a seven lengths thumping of Cue Card. Plenty of substance there – but it was all style too – going to the front at the top of the hill and freewheeling to victory from there.

It was spine-tingling stuff – and remarkably he was to up the ante a mere 12 months later.

Tanking to the front at the third last in the Champion Chase, he sauntered clear to score on the bridle by 19 lengths from a previous winner of this race in Sizing Europe.

The rest were still in Bishops Cleeve as the principals turned for home. This was a performance that had the numbers men purring, Timeform’s highest-rated display at the Festival for the last 20 years.

Sprinter Sacre is stunning in the Champion Chase

And he was only seven – where on earth was he going to take two-mile chasing?

Sadly that was as good as it got – on the raw figures at least.

Having struck at Aintree and Punchestown in the spring following that Champion stroll, Sprinter Sacre was box office in a way very few horses become – but on his reappearance at Kempton the following Christmas the wheels came off. He was pulled-up by Barry Geraghty when sent off a 2/9 favourite for the Desert Orchid Chase and was found to be suffering from an irregular heartbeat.

Rest and recuperation were prescribed and the public rebuilding project began in the Clarence House at Ascot a year and change later.

He was to find Dodging Bullets, a horse who’d have been little more than a sparring partner in his pomp, too good.

Then onto Cheltenham in March and again he failed to complete – pulling up sharply after coming off the bridle jumping the third last. He then went to Sandown and couldn’t lay a glove on Special Tiara in the Celebration Chase.

The magic had gone.

But Nicky Henderson never lost faith – and Sprinter clambered off the canvas for a glorious farewell season.

The seeds were sown in the Shloer Chase where the rhythm and precision fencing were back, it might not have been the deepest of renewals but a 14-length defeat of Somersby at least showed the fire still burned.

It was then back to the Desert Orchid and redemption in a race where the warning lights had first flashed. For much of the straight he looked in trouble as Sire De Grugy poured it on up front, but Sprinter was bold and brave at the last and tenacious on the run to the line.

And then the Impossible Dream, a third Champion Chase.

Un De Sceaux was supposed to win it – and looked like doing just that when sweeping past Special Tiara at the top of the hill.

In behind, Sprinter Sacre had jumped boldly and travelled well until getting in too close to the third last. He was shaken up by Nico de Boinville soon after but unlike the previous year, there was a response.

The crowd erupted as he joined then passed the favourite on the turn for home and jumping the second last his head again wore the crown.

Sprinter Sacre returns in triumph in 2016

Timeform rate the performance two stone inferior to his previous win in the day-two feature, but this wasn’t a day for numbers, it was a moment to let the heart rule the head.

After all he’d been through, the trials and tribulations, here was a champion reclaiming the throne in front of his jubilant subjects.

Days like this never fade – and for good reason. For all the brilliance of what had gone before, it was the third Festival win, against the odds and at time when he was clearly fallible, that resonated most.

Pure Cheltenham magic.

Timeform: The Cheltenham years

2011/2012 Season

Given a breathing operation following his novice hurdle campaign and having seemingly strengthened and matured into his robust frame, Sprinter Sacre remained unbeaten in five starts during his novice chase campaign, culminating in his first top-flight victories in the Arkle at the Cheltenham Festival and Maghull Novices’ Chase at Aintree.

Sacre Sacre, ridden by conditional David Bass, made his much-anticipated chasing debut at Doncaster, and it’s highly likely that it was the best performance from a novice ever seen on Town Moor. Sprinter Sacre jumped very well, spectacularly so on occasions, and shot clear after the last to win unextended. A mouth-watering clash with Champion Hurdle runner-up Peddlers Cross followed in the Wayward Lad Novices’ Chase at Kempton and, in receipt of 2 lb, Sprinter Sacre demolished Peddlers Cross by 16 lengths.

Stepped up into open company, Sprinter Sacre didn’t need to improve when exuberantly dispatching some older rivals who were below top class in the Game Spirit at Newbury, though he still broke the course record. There was even better to come in a strong-looking Arkle with old foes Al Ferof and Cue Card in attendance. He duly routed them, producing the best Arkle performance since Azertyuiop in 2003, quickening impressively when asked after the last and sauntering clear.

He completed a simple task in the four-runner Maghull Novices’ at Aintree, and the race report read: “He's a most exciting prospect for open company next season and it's no surprise that he's already a short-priced favourite for the Champion Chase.”

The Arkle/Champion Chase double had been completed four times since the turn of the millennium and Sprinter Sacre appeared to have outstanding claims of achieving the feat. In fact, he ended the season rated 175p, the highest for a novice chaser in Timeform’s history, surpassing the 172 Gloria Victis achieved in the 1999/2000 season.

Major races won

  • Wayward Lad Novices’ Chase, Kempton
  • Game Spirit Chase, Newbury
  • Arkle Challenge Trophy, Cheltenham
  • Maghull Novices’ Chase, Aintree

2012/2013 Season

The 2012/2013 season is no doubt the one in which Sprinter Sacre went from an extraordinary novice to one of the all-time greats. Again, he remained unbeaten in five starts, this time all at the very top level, by an aggregate of 58 lengths. He completed a rare treble in the process by winning at the three major spring festivals of Cheltenham, Aintree and Punchestown in the same season, the first since Istabraq in 1999 to do so. It would be a season that saw him dubbed by Timeform as ‘the most exciting chaser around” and “as good a two-mile chaser as we have seen’.

It all started at Sandown in the Tingle Creek. The race had been billed as a clash between the Paul Nicholls-trained Sanctuaire and Sprinter Sacre, but it was not a closely-fought contest, with Sprinter Sacre easing clear in customary fashion to give Kumbeshwar a 15-length and 22 lb beating.

It was a similar story in the Victor Chandler Chase, moved from Ascot to Cheltenham, in which Sprinter Sacre attracted running notes of, ‘typically jumped well, travelled strongly, chased leader fifth, led seventh, drew clear on bridle from 3 out, impressive’. He handed a 14-length thrashing to the enigmatic Mad Moose, who was on a rare going day.

It was in the Champion Chase at the Cheltenham Festival that Sprinter Sacre produced his career-best performance, and one of the greatest in the history of National Hunt racing. Multiple graded winners lined up against him but he annihilated them, making the top-class and former winner Sizing Europe look ordinary.

Sprinter Sacre was allotted a Timeform master rating of 192p, the highest in the modern era and 20 lb higher than when Remittance Man won his second Champion Chase for Henderson in 1992.

He was just as breath-taking in the Melling Chase at Aintree 18 days later, defeating Cue Card again on the final occasion the pair would meet. He scored by four and a half lengths but was value for any amount more. On his only foray to Ireland, he wasn’t at his brilliant best, possibly feeling the effects of three quick races in the Punchestown Champion Chase. However, a big crowd turned out to see him triumph and Henderson stated ‘only the Queen and the Pope’ would get a bigger welcome in Ireland than he did. Little did his adoring public know it would be his last success for 31 months.

Major races won

  • Tingle Creek Chase, Sandown
  • Victor Chandler Chase, Ascot
  • Champion Chase, Cheltenham
  • Melling Chase, Aintree
  • Boylesports Champion Chase, Punchestown

2015/16 Season

Now ridden by Nico de Boinville, regular work rider and stable jockey to Henderson, Sprinter Sacre remarkably went unbeaten in his final season and regained his Champion Chase crown. A smooth success in the Shloer Chase on his reappearance suggested that Sprinter Sacre may still have been capable of cutting it at the highest level, and a hard-fought three-quarter-length victory over Sire De Grugy at Kempton over Christmas backed up that impression.

Sent off a 5/1 chance against Un De Sceaux, a horse who was unbeaten when completing, Sprinter Sacre proved that his trademark swagger was back, and he powered past his rival on the turn for home. He was well in control on the approach to the final fence and, despite putting in an untidy jump and tiring slightly up the hill, he regained his title and send the Cheltenham crowd into pandemonium.

On the 23rd April 2016, fully ten years to the day since he was foaled, Sprinter Sacre won his final start in the Celebration Chase, recording his best performance that season and beating Un De Sceaux by 16 lengths.

A fitting ending to the career of one of the all-time greats.

Major races won

  • Desert Orchid Chase, Kempton
  • Champion Chase, Cheltenham
  • Celebration Chase, Sandown

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