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Cheltenham Festival: Sprinter can't dodge the Bullets

By Kevin Garside

Sadly, painfully, not the fabled end for which the whole of Cheltenham yearned for yesterday.

Sprinter Sacre, one of the greats, his victory in the Queen Mother Champion Chase two years ago arguably as emphatic as any the Festival has seen in recent times, was in the unsaddling enclosure when Dodging Bullets returned to the parade ring to gorge on the applause for victory.

Gathered in a concerned circle of downturned mouths and heavy lids, trainer Nicky Henderson, owners and family members sought comfort in the early diagnosis of a healthy heart.

Whatever it was that persuaded Barry Geraghty to pull up the Sprinter, it was not the irregular ticker that threatened to end it all at Kempton in December 2013.

He would be scoped to determine the cause of his malfunction. It was a case of keeping everything crossed in the hope of a positive outcome. "It's a setback, no doubt about it," Henderson said.

"It hurts. He was looking so good. We knew that he was not the horse that won here two years ago. He didn't need to be. No disrespect to Dodging Bullets, but he should have been beating him if he were right."

Henderson insisted there had been no resumption on the gallops of the blood traces that showed on his return.

Whether Sprinter Sacre races again is a decision for another day. Either way the memory of that crushing victory over Sizing Europe will be his lasting legacy. He left a horse that had won here twice, including the Champion Chase in 2011, treading treacle 19 lengths back.

Given the lethal toll this place can take on animals that fail to get round, we should be thankful Sprinter Sacre came back yesterday.

"He has been a great horse and if it is wrong to go on I'm sure we won't do that," said Henderson. "But if we find a switch to get rid of whatever is wrong with him today, then who knows? There are still technically years in him."

Dodging Bullets filled the gap admirably, substantiating his first victory over the Sprinter by outpacing Somersby from the last in a thrilling finish. It was the second of three winners on the day for Paul Nicholls.

With Sire De Grugy out of it despite coming home fourth and Ulster great AP McCoy unable to coax a response from Mr Mole, it was the Mick Channon-trained Somersby - with Ulster jockey Brian Hughes on board - that drew alongside one fence out.

Sam Twiston-Davies, who had just ridden Aux Ptits Soins to victory in the Coral Cup, justified his elevation to role of leading man at the Nicholls yard, sealing a mighty double for jockey and trainer in style.

"I thought Sam gave him a fantastic ride," Nicholls said.

"I know the other two were past champions but I couldn't see how they were shorter than us in the betting. It must have been on sentiment. Dodging Bullets was the progressive young horse. He won't run again this season."

While Nicholls celebrated a marvellous day, Henderson, still without a win this week, felt the chill of a cold wind blowing out of the west.

He was not alone. The withdrawal in the morning of Champagne Fever denied Willie Mullins a pop at a race he has never won.

An injury sustained in a horsebox demonstrates how vulnerable to the random variable this sport can be.

There would be joy, however, in the performance of Don Poli in the RSA Chase. Even if he does not claim another winner this week, Mullins will float home. Don Poli gave him his fifth winner of the Festival and is already 4-1 for next year's Gold Cup.

Bryan Cooper moved the big cruiser into position and seized victory.

Owner Michael O'Leary was very much the man in the winner's enclosure. As proprietor of Ryanair, O'Leary has some expertise in flying machines, and was thrilled at the way Don Poli denied others space.

"Bryan gave him a peach of a ride and it's another outstanding training performance from Willie. The man's a genius," O'Leary commented.

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