The day David Bass and Sprinter Sacre galloped towards superstar status at Doncaster
His standing in the weighing room is such that he is now jumps president of the Professional Jockeys’ Association – a de facto union leader.
Yet, 10 years ago, he was the rider in the saddle when the scintillating Sprinter Sacre made his steeplechasing debut at Doncaster.
It was the beginning of a journey that saw superstar status bestowed upon Nicky Henderson’s stable star – one of racing’s all-time greats.
In owner Caroline Mould’s red and blue colours, he went on to dominate the two-mile division, winning the 2013 Queen Mother Champion Chase, before a stirring comeback from a fibrillating heart to regain his crown three years later.
For Bass, the son of a clergywoman from a family of musicians, only now does he truly appreciate the almost facile 24-length win over Mick Easterby’s Lightening Rod in the Atteys Solicitors Novices’ Chase.
By December 9, 2011, Sprinter Sacre’s precociousness preceded him following a novice hurdle campaign that ended in Cheltenham Festival defeat under the legendary AP McCoy.
Yet, with Henderson’s stable jockey Barry Geraghty in action at Cheltenham, and Sprinter Sacre’s work rider Nico de Boinville deemed too inexperienced, Bass got the call to go to Town Moor. Just 23, he had still to ride out his conditional rider’s claim – a weight advantage given to jump jockeys with less than 75 winners to their name. “Looking back on it, for Nicky to put me up on him as a 3lb claimer on Sprinter’s first run over fences, and with everything we knew about the horse, it was a massive call,” he reflected in an interview with The Yorkshire Post.
“I didn’t really appreciate it at the time and I wish I taken it all in a bit more. I had ridden him in a few bits of work but Nico rode him every day back then. Nico was one of the first people to ride him as a youngster. I was living with Nico at the time, and he mentioned that I might be riding him. I remember schooling him, pulling up and thinking ‘I can’t f*** this up’. I thought ‘Jeez, this is something else’.”
What Bass remembers is a sense of calmness at Seven Barrows in Lambourn where Henderson has trained countless champions – the jockey had already been entrusted with high-profile rides due to his point-to-point experience. “He didn’t really say a lot, Nicky, to be honest. He’s very good at giving you confidence – I was a three-pound claimer and he didn’t want to make a big fuss and big deal about it,” he said.
“I didn’t feel a whole lot of pressure. Looking back, I probably should have done. Nico said to me the day before ‘Please don’t fire him at a fence and see any long strides’. He was far more worried than I was. Looking back, I didn’t really appreciate the calibre of the horse I was riding. I just saw the race as another winner – an odds-on shot in a novice chase.”
The jockey’s nonchalance was in total contrast to the nerves at Cheltenham where Henderson, it was reported, was even more tense than usual while Geraghty – Sprinter Sacre’s regular rider at the time – could barely watch TV coverage between rides.
In his autobiography True Colours, Geraghty revealed how he gave Henderson’s assistant Ben Pauling “both barrels” about the importance of keeping the horse calm before the start – not least because Bass already had a reputation as an assertive rider who has become even more fearless with time.
“Sprinter’s the most exciting horse I have sat on since Moscow (Flyer),” he wrote.
“He’s my baby and I want to mind him. I don’t want David to be worried or nervous going out on him, so I try not to let him see how anxious I am.”
Boisterous going to the first of 12 fences, Bass did well to contain Sprinter Sacre’s exuberance before negotiating the obstacle with the type of athletic leap that would come to become the champion’s hallmark.
Unlike those watching from the Cotswolds, the jockey was calm. “An amazing feeling. He was so athletic – just the perfect athlete. He had so much scope and he was very clever,” recalled Bass. “I remember him making a mistake at the water jump – the water jump was too small and had no respect for it.”
Early on, Sprinter Sacre disputed the lead with Celtic Wish whose jockey, Andrew Thornton, simply recalled being overtaken at each fence by this “big black aeroplane of a horse”.
He recalls telling Bass to kick on at the halfway point – “I couldn’t go any faster” – and Sprinter Sacre then winged the seventh after standing off the obstacle.
“I remember that and I didn’t ask him to do it,” said Bass. “He (Sprinter Sacre) was a lot smarter than me, that’s for sure. He was just in first gear but I did ask, from about three strides out, for a big jump at the last just to annoy Nico.”
By the time Sprinter Sacre had pulled up, Bass was shaking his head in disbelief at the horse’s prowess.
“It was an adrenaline rush. Ben said to me as we came back to the winners’ enclosure: ‘You do not realise what you have just ridden’. At the time I didn’t.
“When you’re young, all you worry about is winners – the next winner – and you don’t expect the quality of horses like him. I wish I had taken it in a bit more. The sort of feel Sprinter gave me wasn’t normal. I’ve been lucky enough to ride some very good horses but he was something else.
“When he won his second Champion Chase after the heart scare with Nico riding him, I remember going out to see the reception – it was incredible. I was delighted for Nico, I was delighted for Nicky, I was delighted for everyone involved.
“They are the type of horses, the likes of Sprinter, Denman and Kauto Star, that people in jump racing absolutely idolise. What they do for the sport is massive – I just feel so lucky to have been a small part of an iconic horse.”
Now Bass is stable jockey to top trainer Kim Bailey while using his senior status in the PJA to champion the rights of riders, from safety issues to ensuring they have the support that they require as professional athletes.
He is involved in meetings at Doncaster to ensure the availability of nutritious food at racecourses for riders and improvements to weighing room facilities.
“We have to be more modern. We have to change and we can’t be afraid to change. A lot of it is getting everyone in racing to work together,” he added. “Even at an everyday level, there’s too much racing, too much low grade racing and prize money that is too poor. It’s very fractured.
“It’s all about the next generation – you want things to be better for the next generation. It’s not easy, but I’m enjoying it and I am learning on the job.”
Just like riding Sprinter Sacre.