Sprinter Sacre was beaten by Dodging Bullets on his comeback in the Sodexo Clarence House Chase.
Nicky Henderson’s chaser travelled with his usual fluency and drew gasps from the Ascot crowds with some of his leaps, but he had no answer to the Tingle Creek winner.
Trained by Paul Nicholls and bred by Frankie Dettori, the Noel Fehily-ridden Dodging Bullets had Sprinter Sacre’s measure approaching the final fence and went on to win by three lengths.
Sprinter Sacre, sent off the 4-6 favourite, won his first ten starts over fences before he was pulled up at Kempton in December 2013 with a fibrillating heart. After nursing back to health, Henderson had agonised over whether to run him on soft ground at the Berkshire circuit.
He had, however, been to Newbury for a public schooling session with stable companion Tanks For That when he demonstrated he was back to something like his old self.
Henderson said of the runner-up: “He just got a little bit tired. They went a really good gallop. It found him out at the end, but I’m really pleased the way he travelled through the race.
“Barry [Geraghty, jockey] just said: ‘Great’. He showed the old Sprinter was still there and turning into the straight you were happy. He [Geraghty] said he took off with him four out and got him racing.
“It was great to see he was full of his enthusiasm, he travelled into the straight like himself and just got tired. There was no messing about. I loved the way he travelled and I’m pleased we decided to run.
Fehily said of the 7-2 winner: “It’s another great training performance from Paul Nicholls. They went hard from flag-fall. He stays well, and the Cheltenham hill wouldn’t be any problems for him. He’s a great horse.”
Nicholls’ assistant trainer Tom Jonason said: “He’s on an upward curve but he’s improving so much physically and is bigger and stronger.
“This came off the back of a career-best in the Tingle Creek so that has proved to be solid form.
“Sprinter may have needed the run, but our lad’s performance was absolutely out of the top drawer. He’s also improved mentally and gradually gets better and better. It was a perfectly-judged ride from Noel – they went very hard early and it was an absolute peach.”
Winning owner Martin Broughton said: “We knew if there was a day to take Sprinter Sacre on it was today.
“He keeps on improving and Paul has trained him very well.”
Despite having failed to win, Geraghty could not have been prouder of Sprinter Sacre. The jockey said: “He ran a great race. Obviously we’d have loved him to have won but he just got tired. He looked brilliant, he felt great. He was a winner for me everywhere until we straightened up when he started to tread water, which he was entitled to after a year off.
“We went a good gallop and I believe the time was very good. He was beaten fair and square on the day, but with a run under his belt he’d improve. Even his jumping would be rusty for him so that would improve, too. Bar winning, you couldn’t be happier.”