Sprinter Sacre: The journey of racing’s comeback king

"Sprinter Sacre" (CC BY-SA 2.0) by Carine06
“Sprinter Sacre” (CC BY-SA 2.0) © Carine06

No jumps racing horse in recent times has managed to capture the imagination of racing fans quite like Sprinter Sacre.

Prodigious in his youth, he was dubbed ‘The Black Aeroplane’ as he seemingly floored his rivals in machine-like fashion on the racecourse. The French-bred galloper would win the Arkle at Cheltenham in 2012 and return a year later to bludgeon the field en route his ultimate destination as winner of the Queen Mother Champion Chase. Health problems would come to define his career and so the story of Sprinter Sacre became a tale of patience, care and attention to detail as his trainer Nicky Henderson entered a labour of love to try to get this wonderful horse back to his prime.

Sprinter Sacre.
Sprinter Sacre. © Carine06

The Cheltenham Festival was his grand stage but for a lot of long and arduous days, it seemed Sprinter Sacre would never again grace that particular amphitheatre as he had done so wonderfully in his ascent to the top. For the casual fan, Cheltenham is all about the glamour of four racedays in March. An intense build-up now greets the festival, months of daily horse racing and sports competitions to bet on for fans while the horses are readied away from the glare of the public eye.

But what of a fallen racehorse, one so sublimely talented as Sprinter Sacre but now beset with injury; how does his unique preparation for Cheltenham unfold? His career was changed forever on December 27, 2013 at Kempton Park when his ten-race unbeaten record over fences was dramatically halted. Jockey Barry Geraghty clearly felt something wasn’t right and pulled his mount up to audible gasps from the grandstands. The unbeatable jumper had been stopped in his tracks.

Medical tests would reveal an irregular heartbeat and so Sprinter Sacre’s career was now in the hands of the vets. Monitors were fitted to track his heartrate and a period of rest followed as both trainer and medics attempted to decide on the safest way forward for a much-loved animal. In small steps, he was allowed to try to demonstrate his well-being at home on the gallops as he attempted to save his career by convincing those around him that his health would not be compromised with racing.

No underlying condition was detected and Sprinter Sacre was given the all-clear to resume training for the 2014/15 jumps season – but now his trainer faced the monumental challenge of getting him back. It was a case of slowly building his fitness and trying to determine if the horse retained his ability and, most importantly, his desire for racing.

After 13 months, he was back on a racetrack but could finish only second at Ascot in January 2015. Two months later, he underperformed at Cheltenham and his career hung in the balance again.

Nicky Henderson.
Sprinter Sacre’s trainer Nicky Henderson. (CC BY-SA 2.0) © Carine06

After another summer recess, Henderson readied his fallen star for a Cheltenham race in November 2015 that would signal either a renaissance or the end. Sprinter Sacre won in the style of old and so began an epic journey towards March and the greatest show of all.

Remarkably, three years on from his first Queen Mother win, ‘The Black Aeroplane’ would come back to the scene of his greatest triumph and do it all again to win in 2016. His victory will go down in the annals of the Cheltenham Festival as one of the most emotional while Henderson, a veteran of more than 30-years in training, labelled it his ‘greatest day in racing’.

The second coming of Sprinter Sacre was a triumph not just for the horse’s talent but for that of his carers, who nursed their fallen star back from the brink of a career-ending health issue.

Away from the glare of the racecourse, he was given the rehabilitation and recovery programme that allowed him to, eventually, write one final glorious chapter in his career before the 10-year-old retired in late 2016 while still in rude health.

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