The King of the jumps returned at Ascot on Saturday but was outgunned by the ‘new kid on the block’; the Paul Nicholls trained Dodging Bullets.
It was probably asking a little too much to expect to see Sprinter Sacre at his dazzling best. With over a year off the track since his heart scare, the sports leading light was entitled to be a little rusty.
Indeed in the early exchanges of the Sodexo Clarence House Chase, Barry Geraghty was happy to let his partner pop away without being asked too many questions. Up front, AP McCoy was forcing the pace on Somersby ensuring that Sprinter’s return would become a full scale fitness test.
As the race developed Sacre stood off a few and started to look the horse of old. Cruising into the home straight he appeared to have the prize in safe keeping, but Noel Fehily drove Dodging Bullets into the lead and the favourite’s lack of match practice proved decisive.
Henderson was far from downbeat about the performance, saying: "He just got a little bit tired which he is entitled to. He took off four out and got racing and when he's 100 per cent you can do that with him. To see him like that showing all his enthusiasm was great and he just got tired. We've got time now and he'll come on for it."
Jockey Barry Geraghty said: "He ran a great race and he just got tired. He was a winner for me everywhere until they straightened up. He felt brilliant and his jumping will get better. He was beaten fair and square on the day but he'll be better.”
When asked of the stars chances of regaining his Champion Chase crown in March Henderson seemed positive: "There's plenty more to come. I think it's realistic. We've got lots to do and take nothing away from Dodging Bullets, but we've got to find a couple of lengths and I'd like to think we've got that in our pockets somewhere. You've got Sire De Grugy to come as well and hopefully they'll meet in March and it could be one of the great races. That day we've got to be 100 per cent fit."
After the race during a veterinary check Henderson’s star was found to have blood in his nostrils. Thought not to be a major issue, it is nevertheless another worry as preparations continue towards the Cheltenham Festival.
Paul Nicholls’ young chaser has now won the Tingle Creek and the Clarence House Chase. Historically these are two important trials for the Queen Mother Champion Chase and he is now a live contender for the big one at Cheltenham. He looks an improved horse this winter, though would need to be after finishing only fourth in last year’s Arkle. He appeared a little one-paced on that occasion on livelier ground and that would be Team Ditcheat’s major concern going forward.
Arkle form has been a major pointer in previous seasons, with numerous winners returning to take the Champion Chase a year later. Last year’s Arkle Chase winner is out injured, though a close second to Western Warhorse was Champagne Fever. Finian’s Rainbow was an Arkle runner-up in 2011 before returning to take the Champion Chase in 2012. Willie Mullins’ grey could well attempt such a feat in March.
Seen as a Gold Cup contender at the start of the season, he failed to stay in the King George and was last seen falling at Thurles when dropped back to two and a half miles. He was being strongly pressed at the last by Don Cossack when tipping up and connections now have to decide whether to target the Ryanair or the Champion Chase in March. His record at The Festival is close to perfection. A Champion Bumper win followed by a Supreme Hurdle victory and then an Arkle runner-up, he clearly loves Prestbury Park in the spring.
And what of the other contenders for the crown of champion two mile chaser? Al Ferof remains prominent in the betting though trainer and owner appear to have differing views on the horses Cheltenham target. After the King George Paul Nicholls hinted that a strongly run two miles would be ideal for the grey. He thrashed Somersby in the Amlin Chase over 2m3f at Ascot in November and back in 2012 blew his chance in the Arkle when ‘banking’ the fourth last fence. He had Sprinter Sacre and Cue Card behind him when winning the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle in 2011.
Uxizandre is another that could go either Champion Chase or Ryanair. He ran a cracker in last year’s JLT Novices’ Chase, though the form of that race has taken a fair few knocks this winter. He looks a horse with plenty of speed who appreciates a sounder surface. He had Dodging Bullets and Western Warhorse behind him at Aintree last April. Whether he has the class to win a Champion Chase is questionable and his profile would certainly put serious doubts on his chances.
Hidden Cyclone is an interesting contender should he run in this rather than the Ryanair. Second in the latter at last year’s festival when chasing home Dynaste, he had actually kicked clear turning for home looking to be the quickest horse in the race. Like Champagne Fever, he is a son of Stowaway and does seem at his best on decent ground. With question marks remaining over several of the leading fancies, he appears a live outsider.
And so to the reigning champ who’s yet to run this season. Sire De Grugy was the outstanding two mile chaser by some distance last winter, culminating in his victory at Cheltenham in March. Like Dodging Bullets he had won the Tingle Creek and the Clarence House before putting his doubters to bed when winning on lively ground at a track that wasn’t meant to suit. He is expected to run at Newbury next month, and his return like Sprinter’s will give clues to his chance of back to back Champion Chase wins.
Rather surprisingly Master Minded was the last to retain the crown with victories in 2008 and 2009. In recent years it has proved a difficult task and prior to him we have to go back to the mid 90’s when Viking Flagship won two in a row. Interestingly the last horse to regain the crown was the mighty Moscow Flyer in 2005, a feat that Sprinter Sacre is hoping to achieve. Royal Relief was the only other to do it when winning in 1972 and 1974.
History suggests that Nicky Henderson’s ‘wonder horse’ has plenty on his plate. There is no doubting his talent and few could argue that at his best he would be unbeatable at Cheltenham. But Ascot on Saturday showed just how hard it is, even for a horse as brilliant as Sprinter Sacre, to return after a lay-off at the same performance level. Hopefully on Wednesday March 11 we will witness one of the great races with all the leading contenders fit and well. It’s a mouth-watering prospect and would be a fitting spectacle at jump racing’s greatest festival.