Paul Nicholls’ high-class hurdler and chaser Saphir Du Rheu is proving to be as talented off the track as he was on it as he embarks on his new career.
Since leaving Ditcheat and joining new rider Charlotte Alexander, the Grade One winner has excelled in both team chasing and eventing competitions.
The 11-year-old was retired in 2018 after being pulled up in the Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup, the final run of a career that saw him win nine times and amass nearly £340,000 in prize money.
Bred in France and placed on his sole start there, the grey son of Al Namix was then bought by Andy Stewart, owner of four-time Stayers’ Hurdle winner Big Buck’s and dual Cheltenham Foxhunter hero Pacha Du Polder.
Sent to the Somerset stable of Nicholls, Saphir Du Rheu rose through the novice hurdle ranks to take his first significant race when winning the Listed Lanzarote Hurdle at Kempton in 2014.
The following season, he went over fences before stepping back to hurdles to contest the staying championship division, taking the Grade Two Cleeve Hurdle at Cheltenham before coming home second behind Cole Harden in the 2015 World Hurdle at the Festival.
Reintroduced to the larger obstacles when posting a remarkable 15-length success in the Grade One Mildmay Novices’ Chase at Aintree, he then mixed hurdles and fences during the 2015-16 season when tackling the likes of the Ladbrokes Trophy at Newbury, the JLT Long Walk Hurdle at Ascot, the Ryanair World (Stayers’) Hurdle at Cheltenham and the Betfred Bowl at Aintree.
Claiming his last victory in the Ivan Straker Memorial Chase at Carlisle in 2017, he then ran twice in the Cheltenham Gold Cup – finishing fifth behind Sizing John in 2017 – and also lined up in the Randox Health Grand National that same season.
Upon retirement, Saphir Du Rheu joined Alexander – who fits her riding around a job with Lycetts Insurance Brokers, and also retrained the great Denman after his racing career ended in 2011.
“Saphir Du Rheu came to me straight from Paul Nicholls’ yard, having retired following his run in the 2018 Gold Cup,” she said.
“He then had a holiday and came back into work to get ready for the team chase and hunting season. I started off by doing a lot of pole work with him – and with the help of Brian Hutton from the Talland School of Equitation, he learnt to jump uprights and do grids.”
Saphir Du Rheu then took on his first team chase, an event where teams of four run against the clock over cross-country courses, with many fences similar to steeplechase obstacles or the jumps encountered on the cross-country tracks at Cheltenham or Punchestown.
“In his first season team chasing he went from novice (entry level) to open (the highest grade) and absolutely adored it,” added Alexander.
“He is the lead horse for Team Rideaway and won the Cotswold Open Team chase leading his team home last Autumn.”
After proving himself as a capable cross-country horse, he was then introduced to the three-phase sport of eventing.
Starting out at the British Eventing 100 level, known as ‘BE100’, where the fences are a metre high, he quickly progressed through novice events to intermediate standard, the penultimate level in domestic competition.
“After a season’s hunting with the Beaufort, I thought I would try eventing,” said Alexander.
“Following one run at BE100 in the spring of 2019, he went up to novice and had several runs – including Barbury Castle, which he flew round.
“This year we have had several novice runs and are about to attempt our first intermediate.”
Although the horse has proven predictably adept at the jumping phases, the dressage element of eventing has posed more of a challenge.
“Saphy has not been educated in dressage, as you can imagine,” said Alexander.
“Having spent his first nine years in training, he did not understand ‘normal’ aids, he would prefer to open his mouth and charge off – particularly down the final centre line – and we often ended up halting practically in the judge’s lap!”
As a result, his rider has sought advice from dressage trainer Louise Robson – and with her help, the pair are aiming to rise even further through the eventing ranks to advanced, the peak of the sport at a national level.
Alexander said: “Louise Robson has been working very hard with me with the dressage, because this has been our weak part.
“She has been amazing, because she understands the thoroughbred mentality, does not drill them and competes at a very high level herself.
“Saphy loves learning and doing new things. He loves jumping and is very bold, but not too gung-ho – which makes it easier jumping those tricky combinations!
“We are having a lot of fun together and are hoping that in the future we may compete at advanced level.”
Alexander sees some similarities with Nicholls’ superstar chaser Denman.
“Saphy is a great character,” she said.
“He has become a bit of a Jack the Lad as his confidence in his new job and home has grown.
“His nickname is ‘Nibbler’, because he does like to give you the odd nip when you are grooming or tacking him up. Denman could also be rather grumpy at times, but as long as you had a polo you were safe! However, they are very alike in the way they love doing things and getting out and about.
“Denman had star status and knew he was amazing. Because Denman was Denman, he was immediately recognised as soon as he got out of the trailer. Luckily for me Saphy is not recognised – and not being as famous as Denman, we don’t get mobbed when we go out!”