Wednesday 22 November 2017

Sprinter surge seals fairytale comeback

Sprinter Sacre, with Nico de Boinville up, clears the third last on the way to winning the Queen Mother Champion Chase. Photo: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images
Sprinter Sacre, with Nico de Boinville up, clears the third last on the way to winning the Queen Mother Champion Chase. Photo: Mike Hewitt/Getty Images
James Lawton

James Lawton

Sometimes mere craftsmanship, even when operating at genius level, is futile against the most powerful natural force - and Ruby Walsh knows this now more profoundly than he ever did before.

He was shaping the kind of day that has made this Gloucestershire valley the centre of his universe, a place where almost his every initiative has a tendency to be brushed with gold.

But not yesterday, not when he had moved quite majestically to within one more victory here for a record-shattering half century; not when a once-phenomenal horse came up beside him and announced nothing less than a full-scale resurrection.

If this sounds a little over-wrought you can't have seen what happened in those moments Sprinter Sacre, a sensation when he burst forth here four years ago, found it all again, all the exuberance and joy which filled one of the most dramatic arrivals in the history of racing.

What happened was that Walsh, aboard the heavily favoured Un De Sceaux, had the withering sense of simply sitting still in a race as important as the Queen Mother Champion Chase.

He had been stretching out for another beautifully judged triumph - a one-two to take him to five victories after his perfectly judged stewardship of Yorkhill's beating of the much fancied Yanworth in the Neptune Novices Hurdle - when in just a few strides he knew it was over. He was caught in that force of nature so completely he might have been a scrap of paper tossed in the wind.

His rival Nico de Boinville - who as an eager stable lad had begged his boss and Cheltenham's top trainer Nicky Henderson to work with a horse he sensed had extraordinary powers - described the other side of Walsh's sensation graphically enough.

"The power was immense, you knew it was back - when you go upsides another horse's girth, that's when he seems to go up several gears. It was a quality of acceleration he first hinted at when he first came to the yard and I was so desperate to be a jockey and keen to work with him.

"Today I had the most remarkable feeling, it was at least the equal of winning the Gold Cup last year on Coneygree. The ovation was immense but it just rolled over me because I kept thinking, 'He's back, the real Sprinter is back'."

For a year the agony for Henderson and De Boinville was that a horse which in some ways was the most remarkable they would ever know was lost, not just to the passing problem of an irregular heartbeat but a completely mislaid identity.

Henderson fought to control his emotions after Sprinter Sacre had come in by three-and-a-half lengths in a race which included two other former champions, Dodging Bullets and Sire De Grugy, and for a while had seemed to come utterly under the control of Walsh's fine calculation.

Said the trainer: "I have to thank everyone who has been part of this horse's resurrection because this is what this is. A resurrection, yes, nothing less. I was never put under pressure by the owners, no-one pointed a gun at my head, but there were times when you wondered if we were putting off the reality that he would never be the same again.

"That was a terrible thing to consider because back in 2012 and 2013 he had been so good, he had been such a wonder, and it would have been very hard to announce his retirement after so much had been lost, to the horse and to us.

"The wonderful thing is that he knows he is good and he knows what it's like to be top of everything and so you could see how much he had enjoyed it today. For two years people had been kindly writing what I said knowing I had my toes, fingers and everything else crossed at the same time because it probably wasn't quite as good we were making it out to be. But then we had to be positive, had to try to think we were getting there.

"Otherwise the game was going to be over. If you saw the horse in the paddock last year and looked at him today, well, you were looking at two completely different horses. Don't underestimate the scale of what has happened today. Yes, I keep coming back to the word: resurrection."

"In all of this no-one should underestimate the contribution of Nico. He did so much more than ride to a great win today. He also became the horse's interpreter. He has been so important not in today's race but the horse's whole life and not least in those early days when he was amateur, conditional, and just getting the horse ready for Barry (Geraghty.) He deserves every accolade he can have. When I think of my greatest days in racing, of course my mind goes back to the success of See You Then but today is something else again. It is just so remarkable the feeling I take away from here today."

But then if it was indeed a gift from nature and the revived spirit of an extraordinary horse, it was hardly in the entirely personal possession of a man already hugely respected in his trade before what clearly amounts to a staggering feat of training.

The cheers which echoed through the valley indeed had little to do with the rivalries provoked by rival national pride; they came from another source, another tradition. It is the one that reveres the quality of a brave and hugely talented horse.

Henderson's great rival Willie Mullins, who seemed to close to another crushing stride towards his fifth winning Cheltenham in six years, shared the common wonder.

He said: "To be beaten by Sprinter Sacre is not shame. It's very hard to bring a horse back in that way - it's hard to train them at home when they are carrying an injury or problem so you are creeping and crawling all the time in a bid to get the horse fit with the least amount of hard work. It's a huge achievement. It shows the good ones can come back."

Mullins was philosophical about his not so frequently experienced visit to the margins of Cheltenham's more remarkable achievements.


He added: "Un De Sceaux would have liked a bit more rain on the ground - that's all I can think. It seemed to be a very fast pace and I believe he will want softer ground as he gets older.

"He's a horse that gives everything in his races, so there was nothing more Ruby could do. If this horse is unable to stay with one that has just come upsides him it means he has given everything."

The result went the way of all the instincts and wiles of Ruby Walsh. It was an inability to deal with something as elemental as a movement of the earth or a blast of wind. It was something so utterly out of the ordinary it seemed reasonable to ask one of the authors if he had anyone in mind to play his role in some inevitable movie.

"Well maybe, Albert Finney," said Nicky Henderson. "I used to know him quite well."

Finney happens to be 79 so maybe he too will need to get back into training. Not required, though, is the kind of resurrection that will never be forgotten not just in this valley but in all those who care about the meaning - and the possibilities - of racing.

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