Top 10 Most Popular Horses: Sprinter Sacre flies into 5th

#5: Sprinter Sacre
#5: Sprinter Sacre

We continue our countdown of the Top 10 Most Popular Horses of the 21st Century, and move onto the 5th placed horse, a horse responsible for one of the great Cheltenham moments…

When you think of Cheltenham greats a few names immediately pop to mind; Golden Miller, Arkle, Best Mate to name a few, but no one has quite caused the sheer pandemonium and outburst of emotion than the horse who comes in 5th on our most Popular horses list - the great Sprinter Sacre.

Widely regarded as one of the great two-mile chasers, Sprinter Sacre was a horse whose story was so unique, so brilliant and so heartwarming that his final success on the big stage was enough to bring grown men to tears, and if that doesn’t cement his place in the Top 5 Most Popular Horses of the 21st Century then I don’t know what will.

Starting his career in Bumpers in 2010, Sprinter Sacre established himself as one of the top newcomers in training, winning both of his starts on the level before going 2/4 over hurdles - with one of those defeats being a third-placed finish in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle. But his talent was always going to be over fences, with the big beautiful beast who later adopted the moniker of ‘The Black Aeroplane’ looking every bit a chaser.

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I don’t think anyone was to predict what we were to witness once a fence was placed in front of him however, with a faultless Novice Chase season in 2011/12 seeing him go unbeaten and bag the Wayward Lad and the Game Spirit Chase (Both Grade 2), before landing a Grade 1 double with the Arkle and the Magnull Novices’ Chase at Aintree - enough to see him end the year rated a mighty 178. The Arkle win was particularly impressive, with the small but select field which included the likes of Cue Card, Menorah and Al Ferof all well beaten by this star in the making, and by the time the 2012/13 season came around the Sprinter Sacre hype train was at full speed.

It was fair to say he didn’t disappoint either, as he went on to achieve one of the greatest seasons we’ve seen in recent years. Five straight Grade 1 wins, from two-mile to two-mile-and-four-furlongs, from Cheltenham to Punchestown, and a peak rating of 190 which placed him firmly in the upper echelons of racing greats. He was so dominant that the bookies didn’t see him go off bigger than 4/11, and his final win of the season in the Punchestown Champion Chase saw him go off at a staggering 1/9. 1/9 for a Grade 1.  The combined winning distance across the five races came to 58 lengths, with Cue Card coming closest in the Melling Chase, still four-and-a-half lengths behind. He was entering untouchable territory, and still aged only seven it was quite frankly frightening to think what he could have achieved.

Of course it could never be clearcut, and while what happened in the coming years was heartbreaking at the time - it is now all part of the charm of the story which made this horse so well loved. 

Sent off the 2/9 favourite for his seasonal reappearance at Kempton in the Desert Orchid Chase, the great Sprinter looked in good nick until a scrappy jump at the seventh saw him pulled up very quickly by Barry Geraghty. The champion had suffered his first defeat for 1022 days, but more importantly, what had gone wrong? 

The news emerged shortly after that Sprinter Sacre was suffering from an irregular heartbeat, not a career ending problem but concerning none the less, and two months after his run at Kempton, Nicky Henderson announced he would be out for the season as he was not working “with his usual brilliance”. But that usual brilliance would not return after just a season off, his long awaited return - 248 days after Kempton - saw him beaten by Dodging Bullets in the Clarence House Chase, not terrible by any means but it was clear he lacked that star quality he had in abundance, and another fail to finish in the 2015 Champion Chase, this time owing to back problems had us all wondering if we’d ever see him back at his best again. His final run of the season again saw him beaten, this time at Sandown in the Celebration Chase and with his form over two seasons now reading P2P2, there were calls for him to be retired. No one likes to see a Champion struggle at something he once did with ease, he had nothing left to prove and wasn’t getting any younger - some had lost faith - but not his trainer Nicky Henderson.

Sprinter returned to the winners enclosure for the first time in 936 days with a Sprinter of old win in the Shloer Chase at Cheltenham, putting his opponents to the sword and crossing the line 14-lengths ahead. It was a fantastic sight, and a fantatstic moment for Henderson who never lost faith. The great legend had overcome serious health problems, and two-and-a-half years after his last success he got his head in front.

A trip to Kempton at the Christmas meeting for the Desert Orchid Chase saw him record a second win, and although it wasn’t the cut-throat, flamboyant ‘I am clearly better than you in every way’ success we had seen from him before, having to dig in deep to beat Sire De Grugy, it showed the fire still burned brightly and a return to Cheltenham and a shot at regaining his Champion Chase crown he had once achieved so easily three-years ago beckoned. A fairytale story if he managed it, bouncing back from such uncertainty to get back to the top. He couldn’t could he?

Well…

Most Iconic Performance

Where were you during the 2016 Champion Chase? If you were watching on TV, then I'm sure you’ll never forget Simon Holts’’ iconic commentary, if you were watching live on the course then firstly, I’m very envious. Secondly, I’m sure it was one of those memories that would last a lifetime.

The narrative for the race was as good as what a nonfiction novel could have dreamt up. Sprinter Sacre returning to claim his crown after this incredible revival, Dodging Bullets and Sire De Grugy both aiming to stake their claims as greats with their second Champion Chase win, Special Tiara wanting to prove he can beat a fully tuned Sprinter and of course the young pretender from Ireland, Un De Sceaux, stepping up as the hot shot favourite to beat the old guard after Arkle success the year prior.

After little position change throughout the first mile, the race, and of course the Cheltenham crowd, came alive as they hit the top of course with the high speed charge downhill towards the notorious third from home ahead of them. Un De Sceaux and Special Tiara had both enjoyed a period in the lead with Sprinter Sacre sitting a few lengths behind them. After a monstrous leap at the fourth from home, Nico de Boinville just started to get to work on the old champion and by the time they had cleared the third from home he had closed the gap completely, even with what was a pretty scrappy jump. As they ran down to the turn for home it was hard to work out how well he was going, with Nico de Boinville far more animated  on his charge than Ruby Walsh was on Un De Sceaux, but as they started the bend, it was clear who was going best. Sprinter had barged past Special Tiara and now had Un De Sceaux in his mirrors and with a spotless and magnificent leap two from home putting him in the driving seat for the win, the crowd went into pandemonium. The old boy was storming up the hill just as he had in 2013 and was on the verge of completing his fairytale, just one obstacle in the way - which he of course cleared.

The moment when he crossed the line made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, and watching it back now still does. It was one of horse racing's very special moments that it should showcase and be proud of. This wonderful horse loved by thousands writing his own scarcely believable story - Hollywood stuff.

We would only see him once again following this success - as he once again beat U De Sceaux this time in the Tingle Creek, his ninth Grade 1. Although he returned to training for the 2016/17 season, a setback meant we would not see him again and his retirement was announced by Henderson at Cheltenham’s November meeting.

This recent week has been National Racehorse Week and many trainers have opened up to the public to show the stars of their yard. As he has done previously, Henderson brought out Sprinter for a photo opportunity - this time alongside Altior and Shishkin. Even though Altior won more races than him, won more Grade 1s than him and won more prize money, looking at the three of them together I couldn't help but think there is only one superstar there. Standing tall and proud, looking over the two horses responsible for carrying on his flame. He is the benchmark Altior was compared to and will be the benchmark Shishkin will be measured against also but for however brilliant both are, there quite simply will never be another like Sprinter Sacre.

Ranking so far:

10 - Native River

9 - Sea The Stars

8 - Tiger Roll

7 - Hurricane Fly

6 - Enable

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