HE’S back. The scintillating Sprinter Sacre proved his Cheltenham comeback win was no fluke when digging deep to defy Sire De Grugy in an epic renewal of the williamhill.com Desert Orchid Chase at Kempton.
Only a clinical leap at the last secured the race for the great champion who has taken two years to battle back to pre-eminence since pulling up in the 2013 renewal of this race with a fibrillating heart.
Though this will go down in history as one of the most significant training performances in Nicky Henderson’s career, credit must go to jockey Nico de Boinville who used to ride Sprinter Sacre each day before being handed the riding responsibilities this season.
The winner of this year’s Gold Cup aboard the now injury sidelined Coneygree, de Boinville appeared nerveless as his weighing room rival Jamie Moore looked to make a deliberate effort to stretch the field by sending Sire De Grugy to the lead leaving the back straight the winning rider covered the move and swiftly allowed his mount to move ominously alongside.
Sprinter Sacre looked to be going the better after jumping the third fence from the finish, but Sire De Grugy would not go down without a fight and maintained a small advantage approaching the last.
However, Sprinter Sacre produced a prodigious leap just when he needed one and galloped to the line to prevail by three-quarters of a length. Though he is never likely to regain the zest he showed when in his pomp, the champion’s battling qualities were heartwarming.
A delighted de Boinville said: “It was a very gutsy performance. We were spot on at the last and Jamie just missed it. He’s a great horse. I’d say we were a bit below the Cheltenham run, but still he showed he’s got heart as well as class.
“Every day this horse runs and puts up a good performance like that we feel blessed that we are here in one piece and running good races.
“For any jockey this is why we do it, it was a tremendous race to be in. We know Sire De Grugy is a good horse in his own right, it was a great race.”
As for future plans, Sprinter Sacre could head straight to Cheltenham for the Queen Mother Champion Chase, a race he won so spectacularly in 2013, without a prep run while Sire De Grugy, the 2014 hero, could take in Ascot’s Clarence House Chase next month.
“Today he had to be a completely different Sprinter,” said the aforementioned Henderson. “Two miles round here is just sharp enough for him, he had to go and lock horns with him at the last down the back and you couldn’t just swing straight past him like he can on a stiffer track.
“There was just that concern about coming back to Kempton, but you’d have to say his heart and everything was in that all right. He was really good and Nico gave him a lovely ride.
“They had to be very brave at the last, but he’s that sort of horse – he’s got the class but sometimes you have to tough it out as well.”
If both champions make it to Cheltenham, they’re likely to face Un De Sceax despite the Willie Mullins-trained Arkle winner coming to grief at the second last fence at Leopardstown yesterday.
His fall enabled Flemenstar to return to winning ways, beating the Nicky Richards-trained Simply Ned, but Un De Sceaux’s jockey Ruby Walsh was phlegmatic in defeat.
“I thought he was spot on to jump it and asked him to do so, but he took another stride and caught it halfway up,” said Walsh. “Thankfully he got up and there’ll be another day.
“It’s always disappointing to fall, and it’s very disappointing to leave a Grade One behind, but I’d prefer to fall at the second-last here than the second-last in a Champion Chase.”
Malton trainer Richard Fahey moved to within two winners of matching Richard Hannon senior’s record of 235 in a season when Bayan Kasirga won at Wolverhampton.
The victory in the Coral Casino Handicap also moved jockey Tony Hamilton to just one short of a century.
Fahey was out of luck with two earlier runners on the card, but the 7-2 winner made sure he was still in with a chance of reaching the landmark.
He sends Scarlet Bounty, Gabrial The Hero, Home Cummins and Luis Vaz De Torres to Lingfield today in the search of inching closer still.
There was a notable success for Barry Murphy in Limerick’s valuable Tim Duggan Memorial Handicap Chase with Pairofbrowneyes.
The son of former North Yorkshire trainer Ferdy Murphy, a multiple Cheltenham Festival-winning trainer now based in France, was recording his first triumph since taking out a licence in his own name.
Murphy said: “That’s my third runner and my first winner. It’s a nice way to start and I’ve big boots to fill!
“He’s a very progressive horse and his work had been very good. I’ll take a look and see where we go, but it’s great to start off with horses like him.”
Murphy was previously assistant to former partner Liz Doyle.