Cheltenham Heroes Of The Past: Sprinter Sacre (2006-)

The Cheltenham Festival is just around the corner, and we have looked back at the careers of a couple of true legends in Kauto Star and Moscow Flyer in the last couple of weeks. This week we will take stock of the superb achievements of crack two mile chaser Sprinter Sacre, a horse whose scintillating performances still remain fresh in the memory.

Humble Beginnings

Sprinter Sacre was foaled in Central France in April 2006, and his very existence was the result of a fortunate sequence of events. His breeder, Christophe Masle, only sent Sprinter Sacre’s dam, Fatima III, to be covered by Network as his preferred stallion was unavailable.

While his sire Network is a thoroughbred, his dam Fatima III is a ‘Selle Francais’, which basically means she was bred for show jumping or eventing. Thus, Sprinter Sacre is not even a full thoroughbred, and he is known as an AQPS horse (Autre Que Pur Sang). Other famous AQPS horses include The Fellow, Un De Sceaux and Mon Mome.

He was subsequently sold as part of a job lot of 20 unbroken horses for £300k to Raymond and Caroline Mould, and he ended up heading to Seven Barrows to be trained by master handler Nicky Henderson. Sprinter Sacre would end up making his price tag of £15k looking like one of the bargains of the century.

A Winning Start And A First Trip To Cheltenham

Sprinter Sacre made his first appearance in a bumper at Ascot in February 2010, and he was sent off at 8/11 on his debut. He rewarded his backers with a win by the narrowest of margins, and he followed up in clear-cut style on his second bumper start at Ayr in April.

He was put away after those wins, and he reappeared the following November in a 19.5f Novices’ Hurdle. He tasted defeat for the first time in his career in that contest, but he made no mistake when dropped back down to 16f at Ffos Las. He won a 16f class 2 novices’ heat at Ascot in February, and he was sent off at 11/1 for the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham in 2011.

Barry Geraghty, on board for both previous wins, abandoned Sprinter Sacre for this race and AP McCoy took over in the saddle. As they approached the second last The Sprinter looked to be pulling double, and he travelled like a dream between the last two hurdles. However, his effort petered out in the last 150 yards, and he had to settle for third behind Al Ferof and Spirit Son.

The Emergence Of A Superstar

That was the last time we would see Sprinter Sacre over hurdles, and he was sent chasing on his seasonal comeback in December 2011. He barely touched a twig when winning by 24L at Doncaster (16.5f) and his first start in Grade 2 company resulted in a similar performance at Kempton in The Wayward Lad Novices’ Chase. He was far too good for Peddlers Cross, and he ran out an easy winner, barely coming out of second gear.

It was the same story on his final warm up run for the Arkle Chase in the Game Spirit at Newbury, a race he won on the bridle by 6L. He was sent off as the 8/11 favourite for the Arkle the following month, and he produced one of the most memorable performances ever by a novice chaser. He jumped like an absolute stag, and Cue Card and Al Ferof were left trailing in his wake. Sprinter Sacre had announced his arrival on the biggest stage, and for the next year he was unbeatable over 2 miles.

Champion Chase Glory

Sprinter Sacre headed into his second season as a chaser with a rating of 169. He returned to action in December 2012 with a sparkling win in the Tingle Creek, and he won his seventh chase in a row in the Grade 1 Clarence House at Cheltenham in January. Next up was the Queen Mother Champion Chase in March, and Sprinter Sacre was sent off 1/4 fav to beat previous two-time winner Sizing Europe.

As they came down the back straight the two market leaders were neck and neck, but it soon became apparent that Sprinter Sacre was travelling a lot more kindly as they approached the third last. A superb leap saw the Henderson horse taking the lead, and two more accurate jumps over the last two fences sealed the deal.

The final winning margin was 19L, but Geraghty never even had to push him, and he could have won by double that distance if he so wished. He earned an RPR of 190 for that run, and he proved it was no fluke by achieving a similar rating when winning at Aintree over 20f. His final start of the season resulted in yet another Grade 1 win at Punchestown, and Sprinter Sacre headed into his summer break with the world seemingly at his feet.

The Dark Days

Sprinter Sacre was pulled up on his return to action at Kempton in December 2013, and the news emerged that he had suffered from an irregular heartbeat. He wasn’t sighted again until January 2015, and he looked a shadow of his former self when losing by 3L to Dodging Bullets in the Clarence House at Ascot.

He was again pulled up in the Champion Chase at Cheltenham in 2015, and when Special Tiara took his measure at Aintree by 6L, it looked for sure that Sprinter Sacre’s best days were behind him. He headed off on his summer break, and most observers were of the opinion that he should be retired. Nicky Henderson had other ideas though, and seven months later Sprinter Sacre showed everyone why Henderson had kept the faith.

A Champion Once Again

Nobody knew what to expect when Sprinter Sacre returned to action at Cheltenham in a Grade 2 in November 2015. He was sent off as the 15/8 favourite under his new partner Nico De Boinville, and it proved to be a match made in heaven. He absolutely hosed up by 14L, and it was clear to see that some of the old spark remained.

He was all out to hold off the late challenge of Sire De Grugy next time at Kempton and, while he managed the win, it wasn’t his most visually impressive display. He would be heading back to Cheltenham to try and regain the title he won in 2013, but as his price of 5/1 suggested, he wasn’t given much of a chance against the 4/6 favourite Un De Sceaux.

As they hurtled down the hill it looked as though Un De Sceaux had them all in trouble, but Sprinter Sacre responded to the urgings of De Boinville and burst through between Special Tiara and the favourite to take the lead. He surged clear around the home turn, and the crowd roared as he put in a superb jump at the second last. A slight mistake at the final fence mattered little, and the 10yo came home 3L in front for one of the most magnificent comeback wins of all time.

Injury And Retirement

After adding another Grade 1 win at Aintree, Sprinter Sacre was expected to be back to try and retain his Champion Chase crown in 2017. An injury sustained in training when preparing for the Tingle Creek put paid to those plans, and the decision was taken to retire the old boy.

He had an astonishing record over fences, winning 14 of 18 Chase starts, including 9 Grade 1 victories. His Champion Chase performance in 2013 was simply out of this world, and to come back and win it again three years later, after all his issues, was a magnificent achievement by both horse and trainer.

Timeform have rated him as the third best steeplechaser of all time behind Arkle and Flyingbolt, and when he was at his very best he was unbeatable over 2 miles. On the day of his retirement, Nicky Henderson said, “His ability and charisma go together. He is the epitome of the horse who looks the part, moves the part and is the part”. A fitting tribute to the horse of a lifetime, and Sprinter Sacre will be talked about as one of the greatest for many years to come.