Greatness beckons for stablemates on collision course
Jump racing's next great rivalry looks destined to be played out from Nicky Henderson's Seven Barrows yard, writes Chris Cook
It looks as if horse racing is about to get lucky again. Following a remarkable succession of charismatic, headline-grabbing stars over the past few years, the sport is preparing to laud Sprinter Sacre and Simonsig, two flashy young steeplechasers which may be among the best there has been and the most likely winners at this week's Cheltenham Festival.
Like Kauto Star and Denman, the now-retired pair that dominated recent Festivals, they are stablemates and, as with those two, it appears they must eventually take each other on. Racing fans anticipate that moment keenly, though it might be a full year away; for now, they are like a couple of boxers, beating up everyone else until the head-to-head can no longer be postponed.
Sprinter Sacre, "the black aeroplane", may be the most impressive-looking chaser ever to grace the track and is seemingly aware of it. Unbeaten in seven starts over fences, including the Arkle at last year's Festival, he steps up this time to the Queen Mother Champion Chase on Wednesday and bookmakers will offer you no better than 1/4, meaning they rate his chance of success at 80 per cent.
Simonsig, a grey, is milder, a smidgen smaller, prettier in that his looks do not simply roar "Power!" at you, as do those of the black horse.
He is a novice, one year behind Sprinter Sacre on the chaser's career ladder, and will therefore run in Tuesday's Arkle, for which odds of 4/6 convert to a 60 per cent chance of victory. Their trainer is the 62-year-old Nicky Henderson, whose Lambourn stables have been home to a long list of the most talented jumpers in the past quarter-century. "I haven't seen horses that do what they do at home," he says.
Twenty-one years ago, Henderson won the Champion Chase with Remittance Man, still fondly remembered by some as among the classiest of winter heroes. "If Sprinter Sacre worked with Remittance Man," says the trainer, "I could go home, have a coffee and come back and I'd finally find Remittance Man pottering up the gallops. Sprinter Sacre would be back in his box. There's a mile difference."
Breaking the rule normally followed by trainers, that one of their horses must not be compared aloud with another, Henderson contrasts Sprinter Sacre with Bobs Worth, his favourite for the Gold Cup on Friday. "Bobs Worth, he potters around the place and does his own thing, he would never tell you [about his ability]. He goes out, he comes in and just gets on with the job.
"But Sprinter, he comes out every day and it's, 'hey! I'm here'. It's very showy, it's very swanky. He likes it like that. He knows it." That attitude extends to his box, where visitors are not welcomed. "He can be a grumpy old sod, actually. He just puts his ears back and growls at you because you're in his house. It's his house."
On the racecourse, Sprinter Sacre behaves rather more professionally and the soothing hands of his regular jockey, Barry Geraghty, have taught him to relax and coast for at least the first mile. But Geraghty feels this fairly recent development may have had something to do with the very deep, sapping ground Sprinter Sacre has been running through this winter.
"If you go back to look at the Game Spirit or his novice in Aintree [two races from last spring], he was a bull both days, an absolute ball of fire," the jockey recalls. A similar showing is possible on less saturated ground this week.
Geraghty, lucky enough to be Simonsig's regular jockey as well, describes him as "an easier-going character". He adds: "But as soon as you want him, he's all guns blazing."
When the two finally clash, it will be a difficult moment for Henderson, knowing that his two best horses are about to have a hard race in pursuit of a single prize. But he will be a winner either way; the moment will be much more fraught for Geraghty, who must choose one of them in advance.
The owners of the rejected horse will be upset. They will wish for Geraghty to be proved wrong and, if that should happen, may make a great show of being delighted with their substitute jockey, perhaps even, in a worst-case scenario, pledging the ride to him for evermore. Small wonder that, when asked which of the two he would be likely to choose, Geraghty prevaricates: "We'll worry about this year for now." But, he is pressed, when you step out of your own situation and consider such a race from a fan's perspective, you must admit how exciting it will be.
"No," he says, firmly. "No, no, no. I know what you mean, but no. That would be no thrill for me. Trying to split them, that'd be like choosing between family, that wouldn't go down well with anyone, myself included."
As Geraghty discusses these horses, it becomes clear that having to make a choice would be difficult for more than purely pragmatic reasons, that he has a deep appreciation of both. "Sprinter Sacre is a monster," he says, with a real sense of wonder. "He's every bit as big a thrill to ride as he looks, probably a bigger thrill.
"For a big horse, he's very athletic, very accurate. He might charge down to one, but he would always . . . but they're schooled that way in Seven Barrows [Henderson's stable], I always think their brain-foot co-ordination is brilliant. They're measured, they're always putting their foot in the right place. It's just a good system that they're taught, from day one. Simonsig likewise, he has so much scope, so much pace. It's harder to talk about him because he's only had the two runs over fences but he's been foot-perfect."
Perhaps Geraghty will never be forced to choose. After all, both horses are capable of winning good races at distances beyond two miles and Simonsig has already done so.
But Henderson has insisted several times that they are "fast horses" that should properly be kept to the minimum distance for jumps races. The suspicion is that, so long as both remain healthy, their career trajectories will carry both to the Champion Chase next year.
And which will prevail? Dan Barber is the jump racing editor at Timeform, the ratings organisation, and as well placed as anyone to judge. He points out that Sprinter Sacre, on 183, is already close to the highest ratings allotted to the likes of Moscow Flyer (184) and Kauto Star (191). Then again, Simonsig, on 162, is 2lb ahead of where Sprinter Sacre was this time last year.
Is it asking too much to imagine that Simonsig might be as good as his stablemate in 12 months' time? "Our chase handicapper thinks he can be," says Barber. "I just don't think he has those physical qualities that Sprinter Sacre has. Sprinter Sacre's like Usain Bolt, he's a tremendous physical specimen. It's easy to see why he would be the best."