Rumours and gossip play a part in all sports but maybe none so much as horse racing. So when early yesterday morning a representative from Nicky Henderson’s yard popped into the press room at Cheltenham Racecourse and handed out a release saying the trainer had arranged a midday press conference the rumour mill went into overdrive.
After hours of speculation, the trainer, with tears running down his red cheeks, confirmed what many had expected – his champion two-mile chaser Sprinter Sacre would be retired. The highest rated horse since the legendary Arkle, a two-time Champion Chase hero, an Arkle winner who won over one million pounds in prize-money, had run his last race.
Wiping away the tears, Henderson said: “We’re really going to miss him. It’s been a great journey. He picked up a minor injury a couple of days ago and we took the decision to call it a day. He’d be turning eleven in six or so weeks.
“We’ll never find another like him. He’s the best I’ve ever trained. He was a complete freak – so unique and it’s been a wonderful journey.”
A promising novice hurdler Sprinter Sacre had his first outing at The Festival in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle in 2011. Beaten by the talented grey Al Ferof and ill-fated Spirit Son he finished a length in-front of the superb Cue Card in what must go down as one of the hottest novice hurdles to have ever been run. Henderson knew his future would lie over the larger obstacles but said he was surprised by the way he improved during his novice chase campaign. “I remember AP McCoy telling me he’d make a great chaser when he got off him after the Supreme Novices. He schooled unbelievably well at home so we knew we had something special on our hands”, said the Tambourin based trainer.
Jockey Barry Geraghty, who rode the legendary Moscow Flyer to two champion chases, said Sprinter Sacre was “just unbelievable”. “He’s something special and he is to be celebrated,” he said. “I have never sat on a horse over fences like him – he was electric. He was just unbelievable.”
Despite winning three times at The Festival, and a further six Grade One chases, Henderson suggested his win a year ago in the Shloer Chase at Cheltenham gave him the most pleasure. Before then the horse known as ‘the black aeroplane’ had suffered an irregular heartbeat and shock defeats to horses he’d spent the previous few seasons beating with ease. Many thought we’d never see him back in the winners enclosure again. “It was make-or-break for us that’s for sure. If he’d have got beat or ran poorly that day we would have called it a day. He was showing us all the right signs at home and we were confident we’d got him back to somewhere near his best. It was a huge relief when he won – we started to dream about another Champion Chase.”
Following a win at Kempton over Christmas all roads lead back to Cheltenham and a place in the Champion Chase field. 5/1 second favourite behind the Willie Mullins Un De Sceaux Henderson’s ten-year-old put in one of the great steeplechasing performances to win his crown back. Grown men wept in the grandstands as the horse, who had been so close to being retired, sprinted up the Cheltenham hill to thunderous applause.
“We are the curators of this beautiful, very special racehorse,” he said.
“It’s very humbling to think that he gave, and he gives, so many people in national hunt racing, which is a great big family affair really, so much pleasure.”