Racing: Coronation day dawns for Le Roi Miguel

Nicholls' imposing six-year-old ready to rise to the occasion and secure glittering prize
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The Independent Online

By the time most of you are reading this on a cold Boxing Day morning, gradually emerging from a warm post-Christmas torpor, Lisa Penhor-wood will have been at work for some hours. She left her bed before dawn, and by 10am should be nearing the end of a trek up the M4 from Somerset to Sunbury-on-Thames.

Penhorwood looks after Le Roi Miguel, second favourite for this afternoon's 54th King George VI Chase, and what is an afternoon's indulgence for those dedicated souls who will defy traffic and hangover to get to Kempton is a day at the office for her.

It is, however, one that many would cheerfully trade for their desks and computers, one that provides challenges and emotions right across the spectrum. And all trainers stress their dependence on the back-room team at home; the competence or otherwise of a lad or lass can make or break a horse, and good ones are highly prized.

Penhorwood, who has been with Paul Nicholls for eight years, was at work yesterday, too; Le Roi Miguel and her other charges, who include Cenkos and Kadarann, do not stop eating or needing attention because it is Christmas Day. "I'm lucky," says the Cornish 30-year-old simply, "I do a job I really enjoy."

Penhorwood has cared for the huge bay six-year-old known at home as Leroy since his arrival from his native France three years ago. "He is a lovely person, so easy to do," she says, "and despite his size - he's nearly 17.2 [hands] - he is a big softy.

"When he arrived he was a great gangly, leggy thing, but he's now beginning to grow properly into his frame. Last season he struggled, he was weak and couldn't breathe properly, but since his wind operation he has looked a different horse."

Because Le Roi Miguel is so massive Penhorwood does not ride him regularly, that pleasure falling to the yard's amateur, Rilly Goschen, winner of this year's Foxhunters on Earthmover. "I'm only 5ft and 8st," says Penhorwood, "and he wouldn't even notice I was on his back."

Today will be the first time she has led one up in the Grade One three-miler that is second only to the Cheltenham Gold Cup in chasing's hierarchy, having missed bringing Leroy 12 months ago because of having to drive Kadarann to Wetherby. "His winning or being placed would be great," she says, "but honestly, that would just be a bonus. The most important thing is that he comes back safe. I can't really bring myself to watch when one of mine races. I want to watch, yet I can't bear to. I half-listen on the commentary, and half-watch, but mostly just pace around.

"These horses, that you are with every day, are like friends, and when you let them go out on the track it is a dreadful feeling, wondering if you'll see them again. But it's part of the game, the fear, the worry, the adrenalin, the thrill if they win a big race. It's why we do it. The highs and lows are miles apart, but they're all part of why the job is addictive."

Le Roi Miguel (2.10) can put his name on the Yule log at the second time of asking. He was in fifth place, and tiring, when he fell at the final fence last year, but had been travelling as well as any. No athlete can perform properly under pressure if oxygen cannot get to the lungs and be dispersed to the muscles, but close-season windpipe surgery seems to have worked the oracle. His victory in the Peterborough Chase at Huntingdon last month had the wow factor as he powered clear of his rivals and Ruby Walsh struggled to pull him up.

The fact that Walsh has deserted him to ride stablemate Azertyuiop, the best two-miler in Britain, could be taken as a negative, but Paul Carberry is no mean deputy. Neither horse has yet proven his stamina over three miles, but with a fast pace Le Roi Miguel's style of running indi-cates he may do the better.

The race proved a golden oldies' benefit last year, when Edredon Bleu beat Tiutchev and First Gold. The trio all try again today, but they are now aged 12, 11 and 11 respectively and it may be time for youth to have its day. The great white hope from Ireland is the six-year-old Kicking King, another trying to eke out his stamina over three miles. Kempton is the place to do it, but his front-running style may make him vulnerable.

In contrast, Therealbandit (reprieved Timmy Murphy's pick from the Martin Pipe trio), who has powers of endurance to burn, may find things happening a bit quickly, and the Gold Cup may suit him better. The same applies to the relatively unexposed Kingscliff, like Tiutchev making his seasonal debut. No horse has ever won a King George on his seasonal debut, though not many have tried.

For the second successive year Best Mate has declined the King George challenge which he accepted successfully in 2001, the triple Gold Cup winner preferring instead Ireland's equivalent mid-season Grade One test at Leopardstown on Tuesday. He will face a maximum of seven rivals, including Beef Or Salmon and the tough, versatile Rule Supreme.

Likewise, the élite hurdling scene is split between Britain and Ireland, with the Champion Hurdle favourite, Harchi-bald, stepping out at Kempton in today's Christmas Hurdle and three others among the Irish-trained hegemony in the betting for the Cheltenham crown, the reigning king Hardy Eustace, Solerina and Brave Inca, due to appear at Leopardstown on Wednesday in the December Hurdle.

This season Harchibald (1.35) has made rapid and impressive strides from handicap company and should have too much speed for gallant old Rooster Booster and too much experience for the exciting novice Arcalis.

The third of this afternoon's top-level contests, the Feltham Chase, has a fine, if macabre, record in spotlighting talent: of the last five winners, Gloria Victis, Bacchanal and Jair du Cochet died in action. Tough Control Man (1.0) is just preferred to Ollie Magern.