Tuesday 12 December 2017

Return to form of dynamic duo promises a festive contest we can savour

Trainer Nicky Henderson. Photo credit:Tim Goode/PA Wire.
Trainer Nicky Henderson. Photo credit:Tim Goode/PA Wire.

Ian McClean

Given the season that’s in it, I wonder at the likelihood of an outbreak of goodwill in the present cold war between the bookmakers and the BHA over the increasingly thorny issue of ‘Authorised Betting Partner’. Perhaps, to commemorate the 1914 Christmas armistice during the Great War, they could select a first 11 from both sides and use this festive period as a “lull in the hate” (to quote the inscription at the truce memorial in Mesen) to resolve their differences.

My ruminations on the topic arise from the fact that the two major meetings today in Britain and Ireland — Leopardstown, Kempton — are sponsored by a different major bookmaker, as was the abandoned card at Chepstow. While this less than civil war doesn’t extend to Ireland, if the current impasse continued to prevail it would preclude Paddy Power from sponsoring flagship events like the Open meeting at Cheltenham next November.

Today’s fixtures highlight just how wedded together racing and bookmakers are, and while both sides will argue it is in the interests of the other to toe the line, the truth is that any escalation of the current situation advantages neither. None of it, however, prevented Coral from playfully having a poke at the BHA in the now abandoned Chepstow 1.25 with the title ‘Coral Proud Sponsors of British Horseracing’ handicap hurdle.

There are many fascinating high-quality races dotted across the whole Christmas programme, but none is more compelling than the head-to-head taking place this afternoon between Sprinter Sacre and Sire De Grugy at Kempton in the Desert Orchid Chase over two miles. Both nine-year-olds are now a living fairy story in their own right. Both have the boom-bust-boom-again profile so irresistible to the public. And both have returned triumphantly from the doldrums just in time to settle an old score at the scene where the drama truly began on this day, in this very race, two years ago.

On that afternoon Sprinter Sacre was arriving at the Sunbury track to defend an unbeaten ten-race stretch over fences. During a flawless ascent that encapsulated seven Grade Ones, the black aeroplane had risen to a BHA rating superior to any other steeplechaser in the modern era, chasing the tails of that immortal duo of Arkle and Flyingbolt. His only real adversary was the up-and-coming Sire De Grugy. Sire De Grugy won the Celebration Chase as a novice at the end of the previous season while Sprinter Sacre was on Punchestown duty, and capitalised on Sprinter’s delayed return in 2013 by capturing the Tingle Creek in his sophomore season.

Odds of 2/9 still betrayed how impregnable the Sprinter Sacre fortress appeared on his return in spite of his pretender’s accomplishments in his absence. However, it was clear from an early stage in the race there was something amiss and Barry Geraghty pulled up the Henderson flag-bearer half-way down the back straight, leaving Sire De Grugy to a bloodless victory.

With Sprinter Sacre on the sidelines for all of 2014, the heir apparent wasted no time in mopping up the Clarence House, Champion Chase and Celebration Chase — all Grade Ones — by season end.

However, it was now Sire De Grugy’s turn to run into the training difficulties that forced his delayed return last season. It all meant that both horses managed only a belated reappearance after physical ailments in January and February of this year respectively. In both cases their reappearance conveyed only a shadow of their previous glory. Both horses compounded the dull impression with an underwhelming effort in the Champion Chase at Cheltenham (Sprinter Sacre pulled up and Sire De Grugy managed only a laboured fourth) — a race they had individually owned in the two previous seasons. Echoes of the old adage ‘they never come back’ seemed to ring all around the Cotswolds and one final appearance each at Sandown and Aintree respectively did nothing to alleviate the truth of the impression.

Then, just as the embers of hope were fading, both horses exploded separately back onto the scene this autumn with more than a hint of a revival, if not quite a full-blown renewal. Sire De Grugy’s Tingle Creek victory might not have pleased everyone, not least connections of Special Tiara, but it represented a giant leap in the right direction; while Sprinter Sacre looked to have that all of the old imperious swagger back in the Shloer Chase, for all that he was receiving weight from many of his rivals. Observe the fact that solid benchmark Somersby was beaten an almost identical distance by the two protagonists in those races and we should be all set for a breathtaking winter warmer at around 2.0 this afternoon.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect is the discrepancy in price today between the nine-year-olds and it may pay to take note of the fact that Nicky Henderson — normally so dominant at this meeting and through the month of December generally — is not experiencing the type of strike-rate to which we are accustomed. In December 2011 the yard sent out 36 winners from 111 runners for a 32 per cent strike rate. In 2012 it was 19 from 70 (27 per cent). In 2013 it was 24 from 86 (28 per cent). In 2014 it was 18 from 69 (26 per cent). Yet this year, before yesterday Henderson has had just four winners in December from only 19 runners.

Whatever the outcome, let’s hope it serves up the type of nail-biting encounter that sponsors might queue up to affix their brand to in the future.

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