As a portent to the outcome of the following race, the old guard very much came to the fore in a most glorious outcome to the Shloer Chase on Sunday afternoon, as Sprinter Sacre at long last looked very much like the horse who had captivated the sport of horse racing some three years ago.
Sprinter Sacre had appeared one of the all-time greats during two magnificent seasons that saw him record an unbeaten record of ten over fences, before the world caved in with health issues.
Last season Nicky Henderson’s 9 year old returned after recovering from his heart troubles, but seemed a shadow of the super star racing had come to know.
So this Grade 2 contest was very much putting his future racing career on the line. He delivered, with a performance that achieved more than any of us present could have dared to dream. This was his first victory since Punchestown in April 2013.
And as Sprinter Sacre raced and jumped with the verve of former years, he travelled powerfully down the hill and then up the final climb, to beat his old rival, Somersby, again running a blinder on his own seasonal debut.
The mesmerising quality of this performance and the drama and heart ache of the previous years, was not lost on this Cheltenham crowd.
The new developments at Cheltenham Racecourse have created a natural amphitheatre for the winners enclosure – and for occasions just like this.
The appreciative crowd roared its approval, delighted to see a bona fide champion back to what seemed like his very best.
He had travelled and jumped sweetly under jockey Nico De Boinville and cruised into the lead as the field came down the hill. His rivals had no answer to this acceleration and the nine-year-old bounded away to record a 14 length success over runner-up Somersby.
The winner was welcomed back into the winners’ enclosure to a reception usually reserved for a winner at The Festival and the racing public were clearly delighted that one of National Hunt racing’s stars was back in the winning groove.
Trainer Nicky Henderson looked relieved after the race and admitted that the nine-year-old had to win today if he was to repay the faith that his entire yard had in his ability to win again.
“If he was ever going to do it again, today had to be the day,” said the trainer.
“We’re getting there with him. We have been happy with him and he just looks so different from last year. His whole demeanour has changed. His jumping was so good. I said to Nico that if he takes you to the front, you have to let him do it. Nico probably didn’t want to get to the front so early but you just have to let him get on with it.
“You know what he’s like – you’ve seen him do it before and he wanted to do it today. He’s taken us to some amazing places over the years and probably today was one of the toughest ones. It had to happen today otherwise people would stop believing. He’s had his doubters – even I’ve been one at times – but he’s nearly back to where we want him.
“We were hopeful today and he enjoyed himself. He’s entitled to come on for it but we were just desperate to get that run into him as he was ready to run. I don’t think he’s ever frightened me as much as he did today though.
“Everybody has worked very hard on him. We’ve had problems with him obviously but a lot of people have worked hard to get him to where he is today. Caroline (Mould – owner) has been brilliant and sadly Raymond (Caroline Mould’s late husband) isn’t with us today but hopefully he would have approved of today’s performance. We all miss him.
“I’m not sure where we’ll see him next – we’ll have to see how he comes out of this. The Tingle Creek could well be an option.”
After riding Sprinter Sacre to a devastating 14-length success over Somersby, jockey Nico de Boinville said he was lost for words.
“I’m almost speechless,” he said. “For me, that’s quite emotional really; we go back a long way and to see him come back like that and to be able to ride him… I’m very grateful to the owner, Mrs Mould, and the boss for letting me experience that.
“He’s jumped that open ditch so well that I just couldn’t peg him back and disappoint him. Going down the hill he’s gone on again; I was just trying to fill him up, fill him up, fill him up for the final hill, but that was some feeling. Words can’t express what I’m really feeling now.”
It was the Nicky Henderson-trained 2013 Queen Mother Champion Chase winner’s first victory since Punchestown in 2013. Last season he ran four times, and was pulled up twice and finished second on two occasions.
De Boinville said: “We thought that, with his schooling at home, he’d got a bit of zip and spark back, and he’s really shown that today. I’ve never experienced anything like that; it’s unbelievable. I’m just a very, very lucky boy in a very fortunate position. The reception when we came back in was the closest thing to the Gold Cup that you’ll ever get.”
Mick Channon was pleased with Somersby’s first run of the season. as he chased home Sprinter Sacre in the Shloer Chase to finish second 14 lengths.
Somersby is a familiar presence in top-class two mile chases and Channon feels the horse will come on from this run and will ready the 11-year-old for either the Peterborough or the Tingle Creek.
Channon said: “We were delighted really, when you get beaten by Sprinter Sacre you can’t say anything really, but we were delighted with him.
“He finished the race well, jumped great. Brian (Hughes) said he will come on from the run and he thinks there still improvement in him which is the most important thing. We have a couple of options, either the Peterborough at Huntingdon or the Tingle Creek at Sandown, although he always finds one too good for him that. But pleased with this first run of the season.”
Dan Skelton was equally as pleased with Savello’s run, but feels the mistake at the second last may have cost his runner a position, but he ran on well to finish third.
The nine-year-old only joined Skelton’s yard this season and the trainer said: “We were pleased with that. If he had a bit more of a fluent stride at the second last, we might have grabbed second, but he stayed on very well.
“We always knew we were biting off more than we could chew coming here; when Sprinter Sacre is in that form, you’re never going to beat him. That run certainly shows that he hasn’t taken backwards step. We are going to follow all the best horses – we are going to go Tingle Creek, Kempton and Ascot and come back here in the spring.”