Last week I wrote with some rose-tinted emotion about the wonders of seeing Bob’s Worth and Simonsig battling it out in the Aintree mud to give heart to those of us who believe National Hunt racing to be the purest form of equine sport.
Fast forward a week and we are still catching our breath following Sprinter Sacre’s incredible return to form in Sunday’s Shloer Chase at Cheltenham, which must surely go down as one of the most brilliant moments – Festival aside – to be enjoyed at that famous racecourse in recent times.
Sprinter Sacre is not just any old horse; he is one whom we all took to our hearts when he was in his 2012-2013 prime, reducing high-quality rivals to distant also-rans and making it all look so utterly effortless.
And then the crown slipped: heart problems at Kempton so the wheels fell off and after a lengthy lay-off his return at the start of this calendar year was hardly the stuff of legend. He was a shadow of his former self and many were the voices who called for his retirement.
Trainer Nicky Henderson kept the faith and, on Sunday, he was rewarded with something like the Sprinter of old. It made me reflect on the perils of snap judgements in the racing game: many would have retired Kauto Star when he appeared to be past his best, only for his victory at Haydock in the Autumn of 2011 to leave us with feelings hitherto unmatched.
Sprinter Sacre came closest of all on Sunday and while there is no joy in seeing horses past their peak being flogged at lesser meetings than they deserve to pick up lace money, we must be grateful that those who cried out for retirement have been silenced. Whether or not he returns to the top of the pile at the Cheltenham Festival in Spring is a matter for another day (incidentally, bookies broadly say it’s 4/1 against). Last weekend belonged to him and all those who kept the faith.
As so often with sport, glory is swiftly followed by shock. And so it was when 1/6 shot Faugheen was beaten by stable mate Nichols Canyon in Ireland at the weekend. Defeat for Faugheen-the-machine was scarcely countenanced, but invincibility is a fickle crown to wear for champion hurdlers.
Even the mighty Istabraq came to know what losing felt like, and while those who worship unbeaten records above all else will be disappointed, those of us who know the joy of this sport as a theatre for comebacks and a chance to rebuild reputations will be all the more excited about the Christmas period when we see on Boxing Day whether Faugheen’s defeat was just a blip.
Genuinely sad news reached us a few days ago when we heard of the passing of Pat Eddery. “Super Pat” as my Bolton friends and I called him as we were getting the racing bug was a superb jockey, but above all else he was a gentleman.
My personal fondest memory of him dates back to August 2002 when my aforementioned pals and I headed to Chester for the day to make our fortune. Inevitably, we did our brains and relied on Super Pat to dig us out of a hole in the lucky last onboard Jeremy Noseda’s filly Anna Kareena. Eddery came good for us, landing an 8/1 winner, and sending us into the Chester night with a smile.
How sad it is now to learn of his hopeless battle with the bottle and how it robbed us of his warm company at far too young an age. Super Pat deserved better from racing, from all of us — lest we forget.
On Friday at Cheltenham, HRH The Princess Royal opened the brand spanking new grandstand in her name at Prestbury Park. Complete with open fires in the poshest of the posh seats and views across the entire racecourse this was a development worthy of the premier jumping track in the world.
One jockey who must have feared he might be spending a few too many days in front of the fire with nothing to do is the marvellous Ian Popham, whose injury travails of recent times is enough to make anyone wince.
By his own admission, Popham wondered if his time jumping fences on horseback were over as broken bone after dislocated joint reminded him of the perils of the game. His big race win on Saturday about Annacotty was a joyous celebration of someone who has come through adversity and triumphed.
If we have a better deserving jockey in the Winners’ Enclosure this season, I will be more than a little surprised.