The general consensus about the three-day Open meeting at Cheltenham last weekend was that it was a mini-festival in many ways: absolutely terrific racing, with lots of current and future superstars in action. The crowd welcomed a number but, alas, said farewell to a few as well, not least the immensely talented but fragile Simonsig who broke a leg in the Shloer Chase on Sunday, and Sprinter Sacre who had been retired after suffering a tendon strain, but was paraded in front of his adoring fans at Prestbury Park. Ben Pauling’s best horse, Barters Hill, slipped a tendon off a hock and will be out for a some time, while Thistlecrack gave the crowd many heart-stopping moments. Colin Tizzard’s post-race comment was a distinct understatement when he said that the horse was “a bit exuberant”. He bunny-hopped a few, banked a couple and flew the rest. Doubtless he is a future Gold Cup winner …. but make it 2018, Colin.
I remember seeing Sprinter Sacre for the first time in the Game Spirit Chase at Newbury on 17th February 2012, when he put in a majestic round of jumping and just strolled away from the field up the straight. I followed the horse back up the walkway and asked Barry Geraghty what he thought to him. With all the expletives deleted, it was along the lines of: “Absolute superstar”. No-one would disagree. Alastair Down wrote an article on the retirement of Sprinter Sacre for the Racing Post. It was so good that I’ve decided to include it in its entirety. Here is Alastair’s eloquent piece, entitled: “Superstar Sprinter had swagger and brilliance”.
“HE was the James Bond of two-mile chasers - devilishly handsome, lethal in action and, when it came to winning, usually just needing to be shaken not stirred.
The name is Sacre. Sprinter Sacre.
At the zenith of his scarcely believable powers there was something almost absurdly glamorous about Sprinter Sacre, and from early on the public were drawn to him as the expression 'animal magnetism' could have been coined for him.
He had a buccaneer's swagger about him and if you plonked someone who had never been racing at the side of the paddock they could not fail to pick him out as the beau ideal of what an equine athlete should look like.
But if he was a prince in the parade ring he was simply the king out on the course. Sprinter Sacre won his first ten chases and in doing so redrew the map of the known two-mile world.
Imperious and untouchable, he made the hellfire rattle of a Grade 1 chase over two miles look easy whereas the truth is all about horses at full stretch from flagfall and the requirement to jump with the precision of a Swiss watch.
His 2012 Arkle defeat of Cue Card and his first Champion Chase victory by 19 lengths over Sizing Europe were, in terms of sheer style and superiority, ground-breaking and stands-shaking. Both days had about them the unmistakable scent of racing history.
Recovery and return
And very much part of our admiration for Sprinter Sacre is that his career suddenly ceased to be a seamless progression and entered the zone of struggle.
When he was pulled up at Kempton in December 2012 it was the precursor to 13 months off the course. At various times while he was being patiently rebuilt at Seven Barrows many thought we would not see him again or that should he return it would be as a shadow of the emperor of old.
Indeed, when he came back for his three runs in early 2015 he finished second, was pulled up in the Champion Chase and then second again. Some of the fires still clearly burned but the blazing brilliance - like those ancient hilltop beacons that sent both warnings and great news countrywide in days of old - seemed extinguished.
But through the days of doubt one man's faith never seemed to waver and he ever looked for the first streaks of a fresh dawn to drive the darkness away.
Be in no doubt, Nicky Henderson's handling of Sprinter Sacre has been the stuff of genius.
PICTURE: Edward Whitaker (racingpost.com/photos)
This finest of all two-mile chasers has taken us to undiscovered places by roads never previously trod but it has been Henderson who has planned every step and nurtured his phenomenon back to fitness.
And it was never solely about getting Sprinter right physically, but keeping him sweet between the ears. Pain, discomfort and enforced inactivity can play with horses' minds and blunt their relish for the job. Few would have tolerated what Sprinter Sacre went through without being scarred.
Nicky will have had to push on occasions but he would never shove. He loves his horses and anyone listening to him on Sunday as the emotion and gratitude poured out will have realised this will never be a loveless world as long as Henderson and steeplechasers reside at Seven Barrows.
It was exactly a year ago in the Shloer Chase that Sprinter Sacre shed his chains and soared once more. It was make-or-break day for him, and in the paddock beforehand he looked awesome and had that gigolo's strut back on him.
And when he won, Cheltenham, home of the brave, went into raptures.
Henderson's finest hour
But there was more to come. When he took it up going to the second-last in the Champion Chase there was something wild about the sound as the faithful began to roar for him, British and Irish voices united in the single, thumping, heartfelt wish that Sprinter would get home.
He did of course, passing the stands to a bedlam of approbation and affection. Always a terrible show-off, witnessing his repossession of the Champion Chase crown was like watching some fable or legend come to life in front of you.
It was Henderson's finest hour and grizzled festival devotees who have lived many a winter will never tire of taking the moment out of the display case of memory and turning it over once more like something priceless. Which it was.
Henderson himself was superb yesterday, conducting a masterclass in rueful celebration as he recalled the triumphs and battles of recent years. He talked about the occasion as being a celebration of Sprinter Sacre's life, but it was also the stuff of tears.
Saying farewell to old friends is always sad and Sprinter was an old friend who never let you down when he was fit, well and able. In a beautiful phrase Nicky said: "We were very lucky to be the curator of this horse." And we were even more fortunate in having Henderson do the job and light up our world with this paragon of a racehorse.
In a turning of the screw beyond imagining, the day for Seven Barrows plummeted from sorrow at the end of a golden age to cruel distress with the death of Simonsig.
Most trainers would have got straight into the car and retired hurt. But not Nicky who, although clearly shattered by the second barrel of the gun, dealt with the media with a magnificence that was both humbling and utterly admirable.
Remembrance Sunday is never easy. In our little world it was, for some yesterday, abjectly painful. Spare a thought for them.”