It's interesting that one of the longest essays in Timeform's excellent Chasers & Hurdlers Annual 2013/14 focuses on a horse that appeared just once in the campaign and pulled up.
It is equally interesting - but hardly surprising - that the horse should be allocated neither a hurdle nor a chase rating or that the accompanying picture features the horse, dismounted jockey and a vet: no ordinary horse, the picture is of Sprinter Sacre.
You could say the plight of the human condition is the addiction to the pursuit of perfection, from the pyramids to the iPad to the very notion of heaven, there is something particularly seductive in a thing without flaw. In sport the parallel is the unbeaten record. By the end of the 2012/'13, season Nicky Henderson's 'black aeroplane' had amassed 10 straight wins over fences, five in each of the previous two seasons.
At the end of his novice campaign, where victories included the Arkle at Cheltenham and the Maghull at Aintree, his Timeform rating was 175p - the highest rating ever attributed to a novice. The following season concluded with victories at all three major spring Festivals (Punchestown, Cheltenham and Aintree), resulting in a more exalted rating of 192p - the third highest rating in jumps history, bettered only by Arkle and Flyingbolt in the days before the jumps was ascribed its own dedicated Timeform annual.
Last season Sprinter Sacre was limited to just one calamitous public outing when the previously invincible chaser was dramatically pulled up in the Desert Orchid at Kempton and later diagnosed with an irregular heartbeat. And now, after the most exacting care and attention, Sprinter Sacre is on the verge of resuming normal service on the racecourse at Ascot next Saturday in the Clarence House (former Victor Chandler) Chase. The racing world is holding its breath.
The intriguing unquantifiable is how much of the incipient brilliance does Henderson's compelling chaser still retain and can he really resume where he left off?
The parallel with Flyingbolt is curious. Tom Dreaper's horse had won 11 straight over fences by the end of its second season over those obstacles and was rated within 2lbs of Arkle on that basis. Interestingly, in a Racing Post readers' poll in 2004 recording the top 100 racehorses of all time, Arkle was voted number one, yet Flyingbolt didn't even make it into the list. The reason certainly is that Flyingbolt became plagued by injury and never had the opportunity to reveal his true colours in the sustainable way that classically lingers in the public imagination. Curiously, the top four in the readers' poll - Arkle, Desert Orchid, Red Rum and Istabraq (note, all jumpers) - each sustained their magnificence over multiple seasons. Next Saturday at Ascot will hopefully offer a clear insight into whether Sprinter Sacre will be the Arkle of Flyingbolt of this generation.
The old sporting cliché 'they never come back' was defied recently by Denman, which suffered from the same (and even more acute) condition as Sprinter Sacre. There was an 11-month gap between Denman's crushing victory in the Gold Cup and his comeback at Kempton. His return saw him beaten out of sight by Madison Du Berlais but he went on to recover sufficiently to finish second in three Gold Cups and win the Hennessy Gold Cup under top-weight off a mark of 174.
It has taken Sprinter Sacre somewhat longer to recover race fitness. Early optimism that he might return for last season's Champion Chase was quickly scotched. This season's Tingle Creek came and went. As did Kempton's Desert Orchid over Christmas.
Instead Seven Barrows opted for a public racecourse schooling gallop over five fences and a mile-and-three-quarters at local track Newbury on December 29. The jury is out as to the value of what we saw there. One interpretation is that the horse seemed to have retained all his exuberance and pulled comfortably clear of galloping companion Tanks For That, rated 139. Others have focused on the unforced error at the second obstacle (the ditch) when the horse took off too early and landed his hind legs in it. Barry Geraghty did a fine rationalisation job afterwards, saying "he landed on it a little bit but that's a good sign, he was full of himself and he jumped the next three brilliantly".
The very least it revealed is that the horse is healthy and that Sprinter Sacre has passed through that critical and bravely public test unscathed.
It will not compare to a full two miles around Ascot in soft ground next Saturday in Grade One company. I say Grade One company, but judged on the entries it will not be the most exacting Grade One ever run, lacking as it does the name of Sire De Grugy, himself pencilled in for a February comeback from a hip injury in Newbury's Game Spirit. And, who knows, if the ground is considered too deep entirely at Ascot on Saturday it is not inconceivable that the black aeroplane's return could be delayed until Newbury too.
The only thing more compelling than a racing legend is the return of a racing legend. The question for Sprinter Sacre is, still aged just nine, whether or not he will become an enduring one. As Barry Geraghty concluded at Newbury, "You can never take anything for granted when he's been through what he's been through, but you couldn't have asked for him to do any more or show any better signs than he did today. Hopefully, it will stay that way for years." Here here.
Sunday Indo Sport