New champions burst into the picture, and old ones sometimes stagger away, pulled up, with the glory all behind them. Sprinter Sacre's doomed attempt to regain the two-mile chasing crown he seized in spectacular style two years ago was a diagram of how even the greatest talent can be undermined by frailty.
The Sprinter Sacre of 2012 and 2013 was a monster. "The Long Dark Aeroplane," Nicky Henderson, his trainer, called him. He cruised into the space left by Kauto Star. His 19-length win in the Queen Mother Champion Chase was at odds of 1/4: a price redolent of Flyingbolt in 1966, and even Arkle's Gold Cup win at 1/10.
Henderson called it "scary". and the Cheltenham crowds gathered around the new legend, wondering what could ever beat him.
It was bracing to recall that day of awe as Barry Geraghty, his rider, watched the leaders disappear after the second-last here and steered Sprinter Sacre, which suffered a heart scare at Kempton in December 2013, to a safe place off the finishing straight.
"It hurts, because they're so hard to get hold of, good horses, and then you find a genuine star, which he was," said Henderson, who dispelled rumours that Sprinter Sacre had bled in training. "He won't work well if he's breaking blood vessels, so no, he doesn't bleed at home. We know he doesn't."
In the winner's enclosure, Frankie Dettori, who bred Dodging Bullets, was dressed like a bookie in an Ealing comedy. The celebrated Flat jockey was grabbing a piece of the Festival action. Stage right, Henderson was squelching across the turf in the unsaddling enclosure for also-rans.
Before we reached him to discuss his fallen champion, he told Sprinter Sacre's connections: "I'm not going to rule anything in or anything out."
The National Hunt fraternity seldom retire beaten horses on the spot. They are not alarmist and are taught by bitter experience to persevere. Kauto Star was not demobbed as soon as it became obvious his best form was behind him. Paul Nicholls, who trains Dodging Bullets, gave him every chance to come again.
But after he had "made a noise" at the top of the hill, according to Henderson, there seemed no chance of Sprinter Sacre ever pummelling his contemporaries again. The bird has surely flown.
"His heart's perfectly all right, we've checked that, and he'll be scoped now," Henderson said. "That's the one thing you'd be suspicious of under the circumstances, because he was a bit noisy down the back there, and it sounds as if there's something internal that's affecting him now.
"I haven't had chance to think about his future. Nobody was pretending he was the horse he was two years ago. Those were the great days when he was genuinely unbeatable. We know he's not that, but he's taken a massive step backwards today.
"His heart has never, ever been an issue since the day that happened. There've been long, slow, quiet days when things haven't been right. But, since Christmas, things have been going so well.
"He's been a great horse and, if it's wrong to go on, I'm sure we won't, but if there's a switch we can find that gets rid of what's afflicted him today then who knows. He sure won't be abused. Technically, there's years in him."
Realistically, there are not. The heart problem kept him off the track until January when he chased home Dodging Bullets at Ascot. It was a competent comeback but lacked spark. From there until the second day of this Festival, the Henderson team blew on the embers of his brilliance. But bookies and punters regarded him with little confidence.
So, here it comes: a requiem for a champion. A retreat into memory even as new ones are being laid. Time to recall, for instance, that Sprinter Sacre put 114 lengths between himself and his nearest victims in eight victories, including the 2013 Queen Mother: an incredible figure in the tough and competitive world of two-mile chasing. At the previous Festival, he established a super-equine aura with an almost equally striking win in the Arkle Chase, the Queen Mother stepping stone.
Geraghty said back then: "I've never before schooled a horse round to win a championship race at the Cheltenham Festival. And that's all it felt like - a schooling session. My only worry about the hill was that it might not be long enough for me to pull him up." The eulogies kept coming. "He has a different gear. Arkle was like that: he was a different class," said Jonjo O'Neill, who would know.
Part of the beauty of National Hunt racing is that allegiances are formed and not surrendered. Henderson, whose yard also endured an equine fatality yesterday in Rolling Star, clung to his, even in the face of evidence that says the Long Dark Aeroplane is no longer airborne.
But there is always comfort to be felt from knowing that Cheltenham is not primarily about the trainers, the jockeys or the owners. It is about the horses. And a champion is for ever. (© Daily Telegraph, London)