He stands on the brow with the old oak behind him and the distant hills ringing the horizon. Sprinter Sacre is back at his summer home in Shropshire and no resting hero ever wore his greatness more proudly.
Out in the field many fine horses slip back to muddy ordinariness and – to take the line from Philip Larkin’s poem At Grass – “stand anonymous again.” But that won’t ever happen with Sprinter Sacre – neither his physique nor his fame will allow it. Even after a full two months holiday out in the paddocks of Juliet and David Minton’s Mill House Stud just south of little old town of Much Wenlock, he looks anything but the big common slob some old chasers run to in the summer. He looks big and bold and ready. And you only have to say his name. He is Sprinter Sacre.
Mind you he wasn’t when he first came here way back in February 2008. As David Minton loves to relate, he was just a big unbroken two year-old, part of the legendary 20 horse ‘job lot’ that “Minty” and vet Buffy Shirley-Beavan were despatched at a day’s notice to buy on behalf of the late Raymond Mould. “The truth is that he was just another good looking young horse,” says Juliet Minton as she looks across at the now famous arched neck and long pricked ears of our hero. “There were a mix of two, three and four year olds and I remember they were all nice horses.”
In the last twenty years she and David have transformed what was once her family’s farm into a thriving breeding and boarding operation. It would have been she who gave Sprinter Sacre his first lessons in long reins and she who during the summer still supervises the two bowls of nuts that he gets night and morning. Caroline Mould is Sprinter Sacre’s devoted and official owner, but a great horse like him tends to also belong to a lot of people from Sarwan Mohammed back in the stable to the public in the stands. The Mintons’ share of that sense of ownership is as warm as it is long standing. “We feel very involved with him, there’s been a big team of very committed people around him along the way”, says David Minton who can never suppress a rubicund smile when he thinks of the 15 other winners beside ‘Sprinter’ that came from what proved to be the ‘bargain price’ of 300,000 Euros for that 2008 consignment.
Out in the field Sprinter Sacre has an acolyte. Jenkins is a big handsome four year-old whose career is where his senior’s was six seasons ago. Like Sprinter he has had just two impressive runs in ‘bumper’ races, winning brilliantly at Newbury and then being an unlucky loser at Punchestown. Like Sprinter Sacre back then, he could be anything. But what a road he will have to travel to even be mentioned in the same breath as the big black horse beside him.
Once again the memories cloud in: Newbury, Cheltenham, Aintree, Sandown; that almost ‘Royal Visit’ to Ireland, the shattering, ‘world-fall-in’ moment at Kempton; Barry Geraghty in the scarlet silks locked on to the awesome ‘Black Aeroplane’ of Sprinter’s absolute zenith; Nico de Boinville stepping up from morning duty to the glory of last season’s ‘Impossible Dream’. It’s warm summer in Shropshire but the head fills with the commentator’s calls of the winter game. That’s what happens when you get an audience with greatness and you are even allowed to rub his neck and scratch his back.
Such privileges are only granted in holiday time. The stories of what Sprinter can do in his box to the unwary, and even to the long suffering Sarwan, are only exceeded by how much Henderson’s first great star See You Then would chew his trainer and anyone else within biting range. In their boxes they are dictators, the field is more of a democracy. See You Then was surprisingly subservient out at grass and if Sprinter Sacre could never be that, he is a big friendly presence. In sporting terms there is something very special in this intimacy. It’s as if it was quite normal to walk into the pub and have a pint and a chat with Wayne Rooney or Andy Murray without any previous acquaintance.
Early next month Sprinter Sacre will travel back to Seven Barrows for the start of another season, one more summer under his belt, one more step along the extraordinary story that started in deepest France on the foaling day of April 23rd 2006. It is diverting to think that if he were a human athlete ‘Sprinter’ like ‘Kauto Star’ would still talk with a French accent, and that the most famous Frenchman to visit Much Wenlock had come way back in 1890. That’s when Baron Pierre de Coubertin stayed with Dr William Penny Brookes and watched the Doctor’s brainchild, the already 40 year-old Much Wenlock Olympian Games. It was from this idea that the good Baron took the idea into the holding of the first Modern Olympiad at Athens in 1896.
De Coubertin is most famous for saying “it’s not the winning, it’s the taking part”. Well what he really said was “ce n’est pas le triomphe, mais le combat,” but then he was French. Such warm sentiments are no longer enough for most Olympians and for all their obvious affection for their charges, it is continuing success that drives everyone from Juliet Minton long-reining her beginners to Nicky Henderson belying his pensioner status as he relishes the challenge fresh talent gives him. This drive certainly applies to Phil and Mel Rowley who run a high achieving point to point yard at Poplar Cottage a dozen miles down the road towards Bridgnorth and who took on the second stage of Sprinter’s education along with three others who made the job lot journey up from France.
For six weeks in that first year the young hopeful would have been progressed as far as cantering upsides and even popping over a few poles. With that in his head he did not return until a full winter of work as a three year old which would have included regular groundwork session under Grand Prix standard Mel Rowley to develop the core muscles which are now accepted as vital base athlete’s frame whether it be carried on two legs or on four. “He was very straightforward,” says Phil, “I don’t remember anything special about him except that he was very workmanlike and that he did everything with a smile on his face.”
During this time there came one of those ‘Sliding Doors’ moments on which, in racing as much as in all life, so many fates are hung. Raymond and Caroline Mould had come down to look at their as yet unnamed horses and to decide in whose colours they would run and to which of Nigel Twiston-Davies and Nicky Henderson they would go. The four horses, two bays and two browns, were all much of a promising muchness, and actual process of selection does not appear to have undergone much detailed debate beyond Raymond saying something like “why don’t I take the bay ones and you have the brown ones?”
Caroline Mould now looks back with sometimes tearful pride on what that exchange with her late husband has brought in its wake. “I can’t pretend to have thought ‘Sprinter’ was anything extra back then,” she says, “and I can’t begin to describe the pleasure and the pain. The people involved have been marvellous but it has all become so overwhelming that sometimes it seems as if he is everybody’s horse.”
Such are the consequences of greatness yet, as ever in racing, even a horse as unique as Sprinter Sacre has to be parked in the waiting bay while the daily treadmill keeps turning. Presently it turns painfully for Barry Geraghty as he nurses a broken arm and ruefully looks back at “the great times we had together.” He talks of that extraordinary track record breaking day at Newbury, the triumphs of Cheltenham, the horror of Kempton but above all the power and elasticity of his jumping stride. “He is some horse,” says Barry in the ultimate of understatements.
Nico de Boinville has nothing but happiness to add as he pushes on with 19 winners already notched for the new season. “It was such a phenomenal year,” he says, “and all the better for being fairly unexpected and at Sandown he really felt better than ever. I feel so lucky to have ridden a legend.” The thrill of association is felt across the board albeit, in the case of Buffy Shirley-Beavan and Celia Marr, having both been linked to super heroes previously, Buffy with Kauto Star and Celia with Denman.
Sometime in October Sprinter Sacre will have a full MOT but neither practitioner expects there to be any problems. “At ten years old he is pushing 40 in human terms,” says Celia, “but it’s other tissues rather than the heart that begin to weaken.” To which Buffy adds that last season the old problems with his back and stomach ulcers were better handled than ever not least with Henderson’s introduction of the new water treadmill to aid the ongoing work of Tony Gilmour on the Sprinter Sacre spine.
Tony’s 40 years go back to chiropractor days where treatment of horses had to be mixed with urgent manipulation of world champion show jumper David Broome’s back on the kitchen floor. “The great thing about a good yard,” he says, “is that everyone talks to each other. They are all trying for the best outcome.” That’s certainly the case at Seven Barrows to which Sarwan will shortly return from his holidays in Hyderabad, where Corky Brown continues to be a daily inspiration to all, and where Nicky Henderson is still restlessly buoyed not just by past achievements but by the hopes up ahead.
“We call last season ‘The Impossible Dream’”, he says. “And he has become such a public horse we are just the curators now. So of course we will draw stumps if there are any signs of deterioration or if Douvan slays him in the Tingle Creek. But horses have a way of speaking to you, he certainly does, and if he tells us he is ready for it, the public deserve to see him take his chance.”
So the mind closes on that horse on the brow of the hill and to all those racetrack images that flare in the memory. But win or lose, run or retire he has already done what very few can ever do. He has given us something that we can hold down the years. We can say that we saw Sprinter Sacre.