Remembrance Sunday carried extra poignancy for the racing community and, in particular, for trainer Nicky Henderson at Cheltenham’s Open meeting.
Poppies pinned to lapels among the Prestbury Park faithful recognised fallen heroes of the battlefields. But memories imprinted on minds were of soldiers of the equine variety, namely the Henderson-trained duo SPRINTER SACRE and SIMONSIG.
Henderson’s association with our premier Jumps track is seamless. His affection for the place is infectious. After all, he has trained more Festival winners (currently standing at 39) than any man or woman alive. He saddled seven at the 2012 shindig alone.
And likely to mean even more than that to him is the role played by his late father, Johnny Henderson, in saving the track from the claws of property developers back in 1963 when he brought together a group of investors to buy it for £240,000. Without Henderson snr, famously a personal assistant to Field Marshal Montgomery for a long period of his life, our beloved Festival would simply not exist.
However, few people, not even ‘Monty’, could have prepared Henderson jnr for the Cheltenham wringer he was put through last weekend. Within a couple of sad hours, he had to accept that two of the most talented stars his Seven Barrows stable had ever housed would never race again.
Sprinter Sacre’s retirement was announced at midday. Conveniently, he was on hand to be paraded in front of his saluting public before the Shloer Chase. And although the whole process was messily co-ordinated by Cheltenham, the mood among the crowd was one of grateful appreciation for being given the chance to say farewell to a true great.
The mood could not have been darker moments later, however, when Simonsig, exuberant to the last, misjudged the third fence in that very same Shloer Chase, came down and collapsed in front of the very same stands that had just been hailing his stablemate. The portentous screens enveloped him, and the crowd knew they had seen the last of the grey too.
You could have heard a pin drop for the rest of the 2m contest. The iconic track cannot have hosted a more sombre Sunday.
Given that Henderson had also lost his number one jockey, Nico de Boinville, the previous day when he broke his arm after an unseat in the staying handicap chase, the 65-year-old had every right to wonder why the fickle finger of fate had singled him out so determinedly.
Emotions would have been running high on Sunday night and Monday morning in a man who often wears his heart on his sleeve and is never afraid to convey his passion for the sport and its participants. The Shloer had been pinpointed as the race to launch Simonsig’s long-awaited revival, just as it had for Sprinter 12 months earlier. Instead it left only fond memories of a horse as brilliant as he was fragile. Such fragility tempted just 12 career runs out of him, but eight of the first nine of those resulted in victories, most notably wonderful ones at the 2012 and 2013 Festivals.
The year 2012 also signalled the first of Sprinter Sacre’s three Festival triumphs when he thrashed Cue Card, no less, by seven lengths in the Racing Post Arkle Novices’ Chase. Twelve months later, he unleashed one of the most sparkling performances in Festival history to land his first Queen Mother Champion Chase, and it was clear racing was in the midst of a superstar with ability to match his male-model looks.
Less clear was the kind of fairytale story that was to unfold. One surely to rival the legendary tale of Seabiscuit if ever anyone would care to alert Hollywood. For the first chapter of his natural magnificence was to be followed by a second chapter of near tragedy and a final chapter of glorious recovery.
From that day at Cheltenham in March 2013, the majestic son of Network went on to Aintree and Punchestown to complete the rarest of spring trebles. Maybe it took too much out of him because on his first appearance the following season, disaster struck at Kempton where the champ had to be pulled up with what transpired to be a heart defect. Fully 14 months elapsed before he was seen on a racecourse again, only for the question marks to resurface when he had to be pulled up again at the 2015 Festival.
Last year’s Shloer had Sprinter Sacre drinking from the last-chance saloon. The conditions of the race favoured him so dramatically that victory was essential to ward off an early pension. He answered every call, exorcised his Kempton ghosts six weeks later and returned to Cheltenham for another Festival tilt. Open-mouthed astonishment and openly tearful admiration greeted the way he regained his Champion Chase crown.
It was the comeback to beat all comebacks, and while it is a shame the story now has to end, courtesy of a fresh leg-injury, at least the 10yo gelding retains his health and his marbles to be able to spend his twilight years in comfort.
Henderson can also take comfort in the remarkable role he played in overseeing the Sprinter Sacre phenomenon. His training talents have been unquestioned since he conjured three successive Champion Hurdles in the mid-1980s out of the injury-plagued and irascible See You Then. But the manner in which, very much like Sir Henry Cecil with Frankel, Henderson harnessed the natural extravagance of the free-travelling Sprinter as a youngster and then, of course, the manner in which he patiently nursed him back to peak form after his heart scare will go down as the stuff of National Hunt legend.
Lest we forget.