As the 2015-16 National Hunt horse racing season gathers momentum in the United Kingdom and Ireland, several of the star performers from the previous campaign have reappeared in recent weeks as they regain fitness ahead of several competitive months. 2015 Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Coneygree confirmed his well-being with an impressive seasonal debut at Sandown while Champion Hurdle victor Faugheen could only finish second when beaten by stable companion Nichols Canyon at Punchestown on Sunday. However, spectators at the Cheltenham Open Meeting during the weekend witnessed a performance by former two mile champion chaser Sprinter Sacre which suggested that he may be returning to his best form after two of years of concern regarding his health and appetite for the sport.
Sprinter Sacre had been regarded as virtually invincible over the two mile distance having won all ten of his steeplechase races with such ease and elegance rarely displayed by a racehorse. His victory in the Cheltenham Queen Mother Champion Two Chase in 2013 appeared to signal a long era of dominance by the Nicky Henderson trained equine star.
However, the horse failed to finish in the two miles Desert Orchid Chase at the Kempton Christmas meeting that year as a heart defect was diagnosed. Sprinter Sacre was absent from the racecourse for a further 386 days before returning at Ascot in January 2015 when beaten by subsequent Champion Chase winner Dodging Bullets, but two later efforts at the races perhaps that the horse would no longer be able repeat his displays from previous years. His jumping was no longer economical and those destructive gear changes had failed to materialise with the horse being dismissed as being a shadow of his former self.
Several horse racing experts asserted that Sprinter Sacre should be retired as it was evident that a mental problem may have afflicted the horse following his traumatic experience at Kempton. Henderson may have shared those views but during recent weeks, two of his other former stable stars, Bobs Worth and Simonsig, have demonstrated signs of their former capabilities after a lengthy absence and a series of below par performances respectively.
Henderson exuded confidence in Sprinter Sacre before Sunday’s Shloer Chase especially as his horse was favourably treated by carrying marginally less weight than most of his competitors. With Nico de Boinville riding, the horse appeared to have regained much of his old enthusiasm for racing and claimed victory by 14 lengths in front of a very appreciative crowd.
With an appearance in the Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown scheduled for his next race, an air of real anticipation has replaced a mood of depression as regards the future racing career of Sprinter Sacre. Should the horse win at Sandown and then recapture his two mile crown at Cheltenham in March, it may be regarded as one the greatest ever training performances in horse racing with Nicky Henderson aiming to silence the doubters from those previous dark months.