It was Saturday morning, but we punters cannot say we were not warned. Dodging Bullets trainer Paul Nicholls did say he had the horse that could beat Sprinter Sacre.
Here’s what he said via his Betfair column, published on Saturday: “A lot of people are saying this race is all about one horse. And they would probably be right if this race was two years ago, because if Sprinter Sacre returns to anywhere approaching the form that he showed when winning at Cheltenham and Aintree in 2013 then he should win this. Remember, he was rated 188 at his best and Dodging Bullets is currently only rated 165. But it is nearly two years since those performances now…
“And I can tell you it will be a great training performance from Nicky (Henderson) if he does win here, and an awesome performance from his horse. So we go into this race with plenty of hope and Dodging Bullets comes here after a career best win in the Tingle Creek, is on an upward curve, and he won’t mind the ground…
“I’m confident of a big run, and I’d like to think that he will be the one to find any chinks in Sprinter Sacre’s armour these days.”
How right was he?
Bred by flat jockey Frankie Dettori, Dodging Bullets added the Clarence House Chase to his previous win in the Tingle Creek (when members of VG TIPS backed Dodging Bullets to win at an SP price of 9/1).
As I told members on Saturday, it was probably best to watch the Sprinter Sacre race with an eye to the festival next March. By all means back Sprinter Sacre if you were confident he would bounce back to winning first time out since late 2013, but don’t go mad in doing so.
On the morning, some online bookies were tempting you in with odds of 2/1 for Sprinter Sacre to win. Albeit only briefly, and with a limit on how much you could stake. They offer such odds principally to get you on their website where, they anticipate, you may hang around long enough to bet on something else.
SP winning odds of 7/2, Dodging Bullets was great value and – having tipped him up to win the Tingle Creek at a great price as recently as last month – I was wrong to not tip Dodging Bullets to win again.
But, hands up, I allowed myself to get caught up in the hoop-la-la about the returning Sprinter Sacre. I was far from alone. Champion jockey Tony McCoy said Sprinter Sacre was 20 pounds better than any opponent he faced on Saturday and should win.
But McCoy’s great friend Paul Nicholls has been around thoroughbred horses even longer and, as the best trainer in the business, knows that it takes time for them to overcome heart issues. That’s one reason he strongly fancied Dodging Bullets to win on the day.
For his part, Nicky Henderson spoke on Sunday morning about his runner up, Sprinter Sacre: “He’s fine this morning. He’s been out and looked very perky. He was great, he trotted up, was very bouncy and full of it. I think it’s safe to say he enjoyed himself.
“He’s sound and his legs are good. He ate up and did all the right things. No damage done, which is always a relief. It was great to see him out and everyone was pleased with what he did. There is bound to be improvement.
“He didn’t blow up, it was more his legs getting tired. They set a searching gallop yesterday. They went out to test his fitness and that’s perfectly fair.
“There’s plenty more to come. Nobody was pretending he was back to his best and in the autumn and we knew he wasn’t, but he’s been gradually coming, coming, coming.
“It’s a work in progress and I think yesterday was a step forward. He’ll have a quite week or ten days now. Then we can start the build-up. That’s why the timing of yesterday was perfect – we’ve lots of time.”
Considering his long lay off, and well reported health problems, to finish three lengths behind the winner was not a bad performance at all. Sprinter Sacre may yet be fit enough come March to shoot down Dodging Bullets at the Cheltenham Festival. That’s when the two horses are next scheduled to meet.
The current odds for the Queen Mother Champion Chase have Sprinter Sacre as the 3/1 favourite, Sire de Grugy next in the market at best price 9/2 and Dodging Bullets at 5/1.
Bring it on!