SUNDAY TIMES, SPORT
All that we could hope for and more. We knew that round Sandown’s ultra-rapid fences Sprinter Sacre would be putting his sky-high reputation to its hardest test. For we also knew that Sanctuaire, his main opponent, was going to jump off as if the hounds of hell were behind him. Drilling down to the second fence, it was only Sprinter Sacre. And he was coasting.
For Sanctuaire was no bum of the month fighter. Like Sprinter Sacre he came here unbeaten over fences having completed his season with a pulverizing victory over this course in April. He is light and lean with an awkward “string halt” high-lift of his hind leg at the walk and a quirkiness in his eye which saw him end his hurdle race career by refusing to race at Kempton. Over fences Paul Nicholls and Ruby Walsh just let him blaze. Nothing could live with him. Nothing until Sprinter Sacre was on his tail.
They were a wonderfully contrasting pair. Sanctuaire was all angles and edge and so raring to go that Ruby Walsh took him down to the start before the others and needed every ounce of his strength to prevent an unintended departure towards Hampton Court. Sprinter Sacre was the beau ideal of the big, high-mettled steeplechaser. He has more quality than Denman, more power than Kauto Star, and as he marched proudly into the paddock the shine in his coat was one to reflect greatness down the ages. It is not hype to start making comparisons. This horse demands them even at the walk.
But it is the gallop that counts and yesterday it was a right one – so fast that he clocked 3m 59.30 seconds for the two mile, thirteen fence journey, a full six seconds (some 70 yards) quicker than the promising Captain Conan clocked in the Henry VIII Novices Chase an hour earlier. If there is a flaw in Sprinter Sacre’s racing style it is that in the early stages he wastes energy pulling himself impetuously to the front. With Sanctuaire the early lead was never an option.
In his five races over fences Sprinter Sacre had amazed even grizzled old ex-jocks like this one with the massive speed and arc of his jumping. But how would this talent handle the hassle that following Sanctuaire was bound to give? For the leader was quite literally winging his fences as he tore from obstacle to obstacle. Ruby had his lower leg advanced to apply the maximum of braking but to little apparent effect as he and Sanctuaire swung down and through the far turn to face the seven fast-arriving fences alongside the railway line to Waterloo.
At the first of them, he even took a point off the 4/11 favourite as the pace carried Sprinter Sacre in too close and the big horse had to tighten awkwardly to clear it. But clear it he did and so now we knew only the strain of the gallop, not the jumps, could weaken him. Weaken him it never looked like doing. The last three railway fences come within twelve strides of each other. Sanctuaire winged every one. But behind him Sprinter Sacre arced ever easier and as they ran towards the setting sun, Walsh didn’t have to look. Sprinter Sacre was beside him with Barry Geraghty still in cruise control.
Defeat in such races is brutal. Facing up the hill Sanctuaire was utterly spent. He had to climb over the last fence and had to cede second place to the 25-1 short Kumbeshawar on the run in. But by then the focus had long left him. Sacre Bleu had come into and over those final two fences as if he still had wings on his heels. On pulling up Geraghty was so thrilled that he cantered back down past the cheering stands with his face ablaze. Suddenly he was beside us, an ecstatic top half of the centaur pointing with wonder at the horse beneath. “Look lads,” he said before cantering Sprinter Sacre back off to a glorious reception, “he could go round again.”
The questions “how good” and “for how long” now scream themselves. Just before the race Kauto Star broke retirement to parade as a measurement of steeplechasing immortality. It was back at Newbury in 2004 that he won his first race over fences and he scored his 19th and closing victory with that epic fifth King George VI on Boxing Day last December. An hour before Sprinter Sacre’s triumph, 14 year old Hello Bud, eight seasons his senior, defied the years in winning the Becher Chase over the successfully modified fences at Aintree. Those two veterans remind us that the fame Sprinter Sacre’s talent now promises will not be easily won nor quickly given. But the sight of him at Sandown was as close to a perfection as I have ever seen in a jumping horse. This Christmas, racing’s first wish is for fortune to give us more of him. We certainly couldn’t hope for better.