BROUGH SCOTT is the first to bemoan the level of adulation in contemporary sport – he says the misuse of terms like ‘legend’ detract from those spell-binding moments which separate the genuine greats from mere mortals.
Yet, when this consummate former rider, journalist and broadcaster listens, sport – and racing in particular – listens. And when he hails Sprinter Sacre “as the most extraordinary athlete in the world”, he means it.
“Horses like this make Usain Bolt look slow,” says Scott who, for the record, is a longstanding admirer of the phenomenal Jamaican sprinter, who has dominated the last three Olympics. “Bolt couldn’t jump a single fence. In jump racing, this is as fast as you go. Five times the weight of an athlete, and galloping at 35mph over 12 fences for two miles, a jockey is riding a living, jumping motorbike.”
He is speaking to The Yorkshire Post after Sprinter Sacre’s retirement – announced at an emotional Cheltenham following a slight training setback – coincided with a new book which pays homage to a supreme steeplechaser who won the Queen Mother Champion Chase in 2013 and then again in March after a fibrillating heart threatened the career of trainer Nicky Henderson’s Goliath.
There is a symmetry to the story ahead of today’s Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown where Sprinter Sacre will be paraded in front of his adoring fans, Scott knew there was every likelihood the horse – 11 next month – would be retired this season if there was the slightest setback.
It is the sixth book to be published in the Racing Post’s current ‘legends’ series, though Scott modestly refers to his contribution as a “scrapbook” because it is a compendium of the newspaper’s reports and photographs of the sport’s elite.
Those previously bestowed this literary tribute are jockeys Sir AP McCoy and Frankie Dettori, Flat champions Sea The Stars and Frankel and Kauto Star, and now Sprinter Sacre, from National Hunt racing. The benchmark is high. “Are they absolutely unimpeachably legends?” says Scott, who is uncomfortable with the misplaced hype afforded to young footballing tyros after scoring a hat-trick.
“They can’t just win three races at the beginning of the season and for people to say the horse is wonderful. Greatness, it has to be measured against the highest standards.”
Sprinter Sacre, owned by Caroline Mould and her late husband Raymond, certainly achieved this with 18 wins from 24 starts, a steeplechasing rating only exceeded in history by the legendary Arkle and Flyingbolt, and the admiration of all for battling back from career-threatening illness to regain his Champion Chase title in March when the impossible dream did come true.
Yet, five years ago, Scott, 73, remained to be convinced when the precocious horse – nicknamed the ‘black aeroplane’ because of his raw speed on the hallowed Lambourn gallops – headed to Doncaster for his chase debut.
He did not disappoint. He won by an imperious 24 lengths under a spellbound David Bass, who was visibly shaken afterwards because he had never jumped a fence at such pace before and Barry Geraghty, the aforementioned Henderson’s stable jockey, was said to be a nervous wreck at Cheltenham. Totally helpless on this day, he already believed that Sprinter Sacre was a genuine superstar in the making because of his breathing beauty and agile athleticism at his obstacles.
They knew the horse’s power and potential, though the sceptical Scott had to be convinced. “People talk up their horses because they are their horses,” he said. “If you go to a boxing gym before a big fight, the manager will say they’ve changed this, done that and their man will be a better fighter. A boxer has to believe it, not so a writer.”
It was only after a mesmerising performance at Newbury in February, 2012 that Scott believed what he was seeing. A former rider who watches races from the running rail, so he can look into the whites of the eyes of his equine and human heroes, rather than a hospitality box, Scott said: “He was very, very impressive physically that day and he went on to beat Cue Card in the Arkle at Cheltenham.”
Ironically, the author believes the decision the following year to head to Aintree and Punchestown, after turning the Champion Chase into a one-horse race, was the precursor to the horse’s subsequent heart difficulties at Kempton in 2013. When he saw the laboured old champion pulled up at the end of the 2015 season after a lacklustre comeback, he admits that he did not expect to see Sprinter Sacre on a racecourse again – and says the horse’s heart-warming resurgence at Cheltenham in November 2015, albeit in a relatively modest contest, showed the chaser’s battling qualities of old, though not necessarily the flamboyant fluency.
In this regard, Scott pays tribute to Henderson for being so open about the horse’s well-being and so accommodating about public appearances – he can think of few other sports that would do so.
Accepting that horse racing also needs betting, and other entertainment, to pull in the crowds, he says people would turn up to simply say: ‘I was there’ when Sprinter Sacre competed – another measurement of greatness – and most racegoers did not even bet on this equine warrior because the odds, after the Doncaster debut, were so prohibitively short.
As such, Scott says racing needs to remember the enduring importance of its equine athletes as the former face of racing prepares to return to the nation’s television screens next year as part of ITV’s new-look coverage in place of Channel Four Racing.
Forty-five years after his first broadcast, he describes his new role as “old uncle”. “The idea is to give perspective without being too boring,” he says. “I didn’t just see Arkle, I saw Pinza and Sir Gordon Richards win the Coronation Derby of 1953. There hasn’t been a cock-up on racing that I haven’t been involved in.”
In the past, Scott accepts that viewers had to accept his blunders because it was their only means of watching horse racing. Now two satellite channels provide a daily alternative to terrestrial television and he hopes racing’s critics, of which there are many, show patience.
“We want to make it fun. I hope people cut it some slack,” says Scott, who hopes racing’s equine and human combatants from the sublime Sprinter Sacre’s to jockey Freddie Tylicki’s paralysis in a fall at Kempton will be chronicled to illustrate why this remains a sport like no other.
“Racing is a glorious absurdity. It’s glorious but it is absurd.”
The Impossible Dream: Sprinter Sacre (edited by Brough Scott, published by Racing Post Books, £20).