News that reigning Ryanair Chase champion Cue Card will miss his intended target at the 2014 Cheltenham Festival due to injury is yet another setback for organisers of the March meeting. The announcement follows soon after the declaration that Sprinter Sacre would not be defending his two mile chase crown after a heart scare earlier in the season. The decisions are also a blow for the watching public, but in the case of Sprinter Sacre, it is probably a wise move.
With stable mate and Arkle winner Simonsig ruled out for the season at an early stage, trainer Nick Henderson was relying on Sprinter Sacre retaining his Cheltenham title after winning last year’s Queen Mother Champion Chase in the style of one of the all-time greats.
His cruising speed and ability to quicken set the horse apart from the opposition and when his racecourse appearance for this season was scheduled for the Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton on December 27th, few problems were anticipated.
However, there were gasps of astonishment when the horse was pulled up after an uncharacteristic poor jump at the seventh fence with further ground being lost in a matter of strides. Sire de Grugy won the race and is ante-post favourite for the Cheltenham two mile race, but of more concern that day was the well-being of Sprinter Sacre.
After a few minutes, the horse appeared reasonably happy and was quite sound later that evening but it emerged that he had suffered from a sudden but temporary irregular heartbeat, sometimes known as atrial fibrillation or flutter. Once this condition occurs, the heart begins to beat rapidly quite randomly for a few seconds, draining the legs and rest of the body of energy with resultant heavy breathing. Stopping for a few minutes can relieve the symptoms, but under race conditions, this is impracticable.
A worried Nicky Henderson alleviated the concern of the racing public by stressing that the horse had recovered from his Kempton problem and a decision would be forthcoming as to his Cheltenham participation.
Over time, he has become more optimistic about the health of the horse, but declared last weekend that Sprinter Sacre was only showing 90% of his capabilities and would not be risked. It is a sensible and wise decision as if anything untoward had happened to the horse at Cheltenham, Henderson would have faced much criticism from the racing industry and animal rights protestors alike.
A summer of rest will allow Sprinter Sacre to recover in his own time and no doubt erase the mental scars from what must have been a very scary episode at Kempton for the horse.
Racegoers at will miss his verve and panache this year, but that is preferable to asking the horse to participate when there is still an element of doubt about his general health.