While the Channel4 TV build up announcing “The Return of the Legend” might have been a little overhyped - how many outside racing know of Sprinter Sacre for him to be a legend? - there’s no doubt that the return of the unbeaten 2013 champion chaser was the talking point of the weekend.
His three-length defeat by Dodging Bullets at Ascot seemed to leave as many questions as had been posed before his return.
Some expected him to return in a manner that he could be below his best and still win - others expected him not to finish. When a horse carries an unbeaten, unblemished record, defeat will always takes a bit of the aura away.
He was never let be too explosive by Barry Geraghty but was safe and economical in his jumping on the outside and came into contention off the bend as Somersby began to feel the pinch.
Switched inside, he briefly looked like moving smoothly ahead before Dodging Bullets went past as the last neared and Sprinter Sacre wasn’t given a hard race from the last as Dodging Bullets was clearly on top, winning by three lengths.
Connections rightly expressed themselves happy with the performance against a race-fit and talented opponent. It should be remembered that few horses returning after such a long break would be pitched straight in at Grade 1 level.
Dodging Bullets improved again from his Tingle Creek run - a race that had not seems to take much winning on first glance - he still has to step up again in the Champion Chase.
His Festival record reads fourth in the Triumph, ninth in the Supreme and fourth behind Western Warhorse in the Arkle last year, though he has three wins at track to his name.
Twinlight was flattered by his Leopardstown Christmas win and doesn’t cut it at Grade 1 level when asked to take on the best.
A.P. McCoy probable went a bit hard but, on a track that has seen him run well previously, this was still a bit below his Tingle Creek second and a turnaround of 12 and a half lengths.
The race posed as much questions as it answered. It had to have pleased Sprinter Sacre’s followers but for the rest it leaves enough doubts to justify taking him on going forward to Cheltenham.
When an unbeaten record goes, the air of invincibility is gone. But it can only make the Champion Chase a race worth waiting for.
REST OF THE CARD
The mares finished very tired in the three mile Grade 2 OLBG.com Mares' Hurdle but it was Harry Fry’s Bitofapuzzle who stayed on gamely for Noel Fehily as she and Carole’s Spirit (third) had looked to have it between them from before turn-in. Land Of Vic stayed on to take second.
The winner might not have the class for the Mares Hurdle but there’s no doubting her resolution. Mares Hurdles are now among jump racing’s most competitive contests and should Annie Power not make the Cheltenham Grade 1, it will be a wide open and very competitive race.
The novice chase went to the Colin Tizzard-trained Kings Lad, another son of King’s Theatre from the stable. The eyecatcher was the Gary Moore-trained Traffic Fluide who went off favourite. The imposing French-bred jumped well and stayed in the battle after coming under pressure and can only build on this.
Top Notch (100/30) and Out Sam (4/9) gave Henderson and Geraghty a first and last race double with two odds-on shots. The former is one of four for the owner in the Triumph but does not look the first string and can be backed at 16/1 and had to fight to see of Golden Doyen.
Baradari battle on bravely to recover his best form in the two mile three furlong Grade 2 hurdle after Lyvius had looked to have come with a winning run. The Nicholls-trained Le Mercurey looks another with a reputation much greater than any ability shown to date.
Paul Nicholls landed a double with Rebel Rebellion in the handicap chase where Fox Appeal, returning a week after finishing second to Balder Succes at Kempton, gained as much credit in second giving over a stone to the winner while Eastlake travelled well into the race for AP McCoy and Jonjo O’Neill but found no more from the second last. Back in distance, he should be noted.
The Champion Hurdle second favourite was the star attraction at Haydock but the only positive to take from the race was that The New One (1/6) managed to pull victory out of the fire.
It looked unlikely at the second last where Bertimont - what were those jockeys doing at Chepstow giving him 20 lengths start? - was driven clear. It was only half way up the run-in that The New One looked sure of getting up.
The ground was a logical excuse, he jumped right and lurched at the third last but we have seen a lot of The New One now and despite the conditions being an excuse, it has become noticeable that although safe, he is not a horse ever to throw a flying leap to gain ground under pressure at a hurdle. There’s never been an Istabraq or a Hurricane Fly-like stand off and fly the last.
If he is wrong he will put in a short one and lose ground. If as expected Ruby Walsh (or whoever will he be in the saddle) strikes for home early on Faugheen in the Champion, The New One will have to jump slickly to catch him and you just would not have that confidence that he will.
Stuart Crawford’s Strongpoint ran a good race to keep on for third at 16/1 while Trucking Along finished sixth.
Sue and Harvey Smith rarely leave any of the northern venues empty handed and left with a double. Despite current trends, they still bring horses along slowly and make them last. Mwaleshi, a 10-year-old in his second chasing, won the graduation chase from Paddy Griffin’s Maggio as the favourite Carraig Mor disappointed and was pulled up. Second favourite Third Intention had fallen at the fifth.
Earlier the double had been initiated by a surprisingly younger horse in the shape of Wakanda (8/1), a fine looking son of Westerner who proved toughest in the conditions, making most of the running and staying on well to beat Cogry.
The Nicky Henderson-trained favourite at 11/10, Close Touch was very disappointing in fourth. Cogry challenged two out but despite Wakanda hanging into him, he didn’t finish as strongly as the winner.
The race looked set up for Colour Squadron but once again he failed to deliver in third and has now finished in the frame in nine of his last 11 runs without winning.
Flemenstar’s brother Barafundle showed he stayed three miles when justifiying 2/1 favouritism in the opening handicap chase.
Aso took the Grade 2 Rossington Main Novices Hurdle, always racing in contention to keep up the good run of Venetia Williams.
A Smith treble looked a possibility as Vintage Star and No Planning were in contention turning in in the Peter Marsh Chase but outsider Samstown (16/1) made his ground up the rail and held off the challenge of Benbens. Conditions took their toll, with five pulled up including the favourite Corrin Wood. Stuart Crawford’s Man With Van unseated Tom O’Brien at the eighth.
Katie T was an easy winner of the Boylesports Hurdle for a sprightly Kevin Prendergast reunited with former pupil Brian Hughes. She looked the winner all the way up the straight and is sure to be well placed for the spring festivals.
Modem produced his best effort yet while the Tony Martin duo Ted Veale and Savello are sure to find the winners enclosure again either over hurdles or fences.
In the novice chase Vautour just looked a happier horse from the outset and jumped well without having to be asked too many questions. Should Un De Sceaux tip up again the Arkle might still be on the agenda.
Davy Russell scored an opening race double with the mare Golan Road and the Eddie Harty-trained Fletcher. The latter looked a nice prospect and sealed his win with a fine leap at the last.
Balko De Flos impressed when beating Jezki’s brother Jett in the closing bumper giving Gigginstown House a bumper double over the weekend following Tombstone at Naas.
The Edward O’Grady-trained Kitten Rock became a possible outsider for the Champion Hurdle after winning the Grade 3 Limestone Lad Hurdle. He and Glen’s Melody had duelled from the second last. A stumble after the last by the mare gave Kitten Rock the advantage which he held to the line.
Take the top three out of the Champion Hurdle betting and it has little depth so although it is a big ask to step up to championship level, it is probably worth a shot.
Glens Melody might have been unlucky and will again put up a good show in the Mares Hurdle.
Wounded Warrior had been highly spoken of by Noel Meade in pre-season tours and looked as though he might fulfil the expectation when winning the Grade 2 Woodlands Novice Chase from the Gigginstown House first choice Rule The World. (Third time recently the lesser fancied runner beat the first colours - McKinley, Measureofmydreams, and Tombstone became the fourth in the bumper.) He still looks as though he has a bit to learn but this three miles sited him well. Meade looks like having a strong team for Cheltenham.
Tombstone from the Gordon Elliott stable, put up a likeable performance under David Mullins to beat better fancied Potters Point, a £260,000 purchase at Brightwells last April. The latter didn’t get the clearest of runs under Patrick Mullins but carried his head a bit high and couldn’t pull back the winner. Whether he justifies his price remains to be seen.
GOOD WEEK FOR….
The Champion Chase - building the intrigue.
Paul Nicholls - again punters should take note whenever Nicholls says a horse has improved.
Westerner - a weekend double with Wakanda at Haydock and Fletcher at Leopardstown, both looking nice prospects.
There was also a weekend double for Robin Des Champs with Tombstone and Vautour.