Acrobatics, merry-go-rounds, fortunes to be won – whatever the event itself produces, the run-up to this year’s King George VI Chase, racing’s Boxing Day treat, has had it all.
The last National Hunt season was a benefit for Irish stables, their triumphs including the King George, the Cheltenham Gold Cup, Champion Hurdle, Queen Mother Champion Chase, Grand National and the concluding Betfred Gold Cup. This season, first blood went to the English, with Nicky Henderson’s Trabolgan devastating the Hennessy field.
Hostilities are renewed on Boxing Day. Trabolgan is sadly sidelined with injury, with Henderson announcing on Friday that his charge is out for the season. But we are still promised a stirring King George revival contest between last year’s winner Kicking King, who later captured the Cheltenham Gold Cup, and Kingscliff, the massive English ex-pointer that missed the last two Gold Cups with injury but who should be suited by the race’s temporary venue of Sandown while Kempton Park is rebuilt.
Kicking King won the King George last year despite a horrendous blunder at the last that required circus acrobatics from jockey Barry Geraghty to stay aboard, let alone hold on to win from the closing Kingscliff. This year, Kicking King was beaten in his Irish comeback race and then also by Kingscliff in the Betfair Chase at Haydock, though he returned sore after twisting a shoe.
Kingscliff’s trainer Robert Alner, a feet-on-the-ground character who still takes Kingscliff hunting, is not getting carried away, but the Betfair victory put his horse in line for a £!m bonus if he should win the King George and Cheltenham Gold Cup as well.
Kicking King is the favourite on Boxing Day. He has more speed, probably more class, than Kingscliff. But the Dorset horse, a real slugger, will be suited by Sandown’s testing uphill finish. Not that the top two in the betting will necessarily have it to themselves.
French maestro François Doumen, who has won the race five times, sends over L’Ami, who was second in the Hennessy. Nigel Twiston-Davies contests with former star novice Ollie Magern. Henrietta Knight, who won the King George with two-miler Edredon Bleu and who recently suffered the sad loss through a heart attack of the three-times Gold Cup winner Best Mate, sends the rejuvenated Impek. Henderson too has a capable substitute for Trabolgan in the lightly raced Irish Hussar. And this is where the merry-go-round comes in.
Alner’s experienced stable jockey Andrew Thornton, who once scored a remarkable Ascot success on Kingscliff despite a broken rein, was this season rejected by the horse’s owner Arnie Sendell, who has decided Thornton does not get on with the horse. He opted for stable number two Robert Walford, who has since been ruled out by injury. Kingscliff will now be ridden by Tony Dobbin, and if Kingscliff wins the £1m he could be in for £30,000 from Boxing Day.
Though Timmy Murphy rides most of Henrietta Knight’s horses when not required by Martin Pipe, Impek’s owner Jim Lewis has opted for Tony McCoy at Sandown. But when Mick Fitzgerald, back this season after a broken neck, had to cry off his booking for L’Ami when his retaining stable decided to run Irish Hussar, Murphy was snapped up for the French horse instead. It all makes property-swapping Monopoly seem a doddle.
The curious thing is that Murphy, as top rider for the normally all-conquering Pipe, is free to take the ride. But Pipe is going through one of those hideous patches that affects all stables at some time, with his horses running below expectations and he has withdrawn his three King George entrants.
In a National Hunt season that has so far been dominated by the deaths of Best Mate and former Champion Hurdler Rooster Booster, and by the arrival of young chasing talents such as Racing Demon and Kauto Star, Pipe’s temporary decline will add new zest to the trainers’ championship. Paul Nicholls, who runs Royal Auclair in the King George, must fancy his chances of taking Pipe’s title this season. But Philip Hobbs is running the pair close, and with Jonjo O’Neill’s horses back in shape it could yet be a four-way contest.
Hobbs runs the talented handicapper Monkerhostin in the King George. Though Monkerhostin has probably had one race too many in the early part of the season, he has the invaluable assistance from the saddle of Richard Johnson, the man who has so regularly finished second to champion jockey Tony McCoy in recent seasons. This time, however, McCoy has never got away and Johnson is only 11 winners behind. That too could prove a hot contest.