Racing: D'Argent ready to shine at Cheltenham

Archaeologists have established that the Wiltshire site of Barbury Castle was originally an iron age military garrison, panoramically situated high above Swindon to look down on its enemies.

Today, the estate contains an increasingly significant stronghold of a different persuasion, the equine army which is marshalled by Alan King. King's troops have mustered a record 42 victories for the Scottish trainer this season, some of them at a level which means he can now descend on the Cheltenham Festival next month in the substantial belief that a duck is about to be broken.

Trouble At Bay is favourite for the Triumph Hurdle, in which Howle Hill could be back-up, D'Argent remains on course for the Royal & SunAlliance Chase and Crystal D'Ainay the Stayers' Hurdle, while the greatest confidence of all surrounds a Barbury Castle inmate in a handicap. It is a powerful team with which to go to war.

D'Argent remains a curious cove, a moderate hurdler at season's outset who quickly climbed chasing's ladder only to find a snake at Wincanton this month. The grey's previous run, in completing a hat-trick at Warwick, appeared to be one of the novice performances of the season. D'Argent was pure gold that January day as he played with Tyneandthyneagain, subsequently a dual winner, including the Eider Chase last weekend and Royal Emperor, who has won before and since, most recently a Grade Two at Wetherby. Even Bob Buckler's Rum Pointer, who was beaten half a kingdom at Warwick, still managed to win next time, at Haydock. It was an exhibition sufficient to earn D'Argent January's Royal & SunAlliance Novice Chaser of the Month award, given in association with The Independent.

At Wincanton, however, the jumping that had been the basis of his successes gradually came apart. The cornerstone crumbled. D'Argent, though, has been built back up again, in his trainer's mind at least. "You can forgive them one bad run and it was only his fourth ever run over fences," King says. "Maybe the ground was quick enough because he didn't jump the way he can, but it was a big step up in class as well. If it comes up good to soft [at Cheltenham] you might see a different horse because he seems nice and bright at the minute."

It might be wrong to portray King as a Festival virgin considering his contribution to the many winners ascribed to David Nicholson. King arrived at the Duke's aged 17 to do his three and then find further employment after six months. Fifteen years later he was still there, by then the possessor of the title of assistant trainer as well as a horde of memories.

"There was Mysilv's Triumph [1994]. Everyone said you couldn't go out and make just about all the running, but she did," King says. "There have been some marvellous days, but one I will never forget is when we had a treble on the Wednesday [1995]. Putty Road won the first race, Viking Flagship won the Queen Mother and Kadi won the Mildmay of Flete. We were walking around in a dream."

The nightmare came after the Duke stepped down from Jackdaws Castle. King believed that nominally and morally he should be the one to accede, but his request for a three-year contract was turned down by the then owner, Colin Smith. Soon the Scot would be out again in the big, wide world with a brown paper package under his arm.

"It went off at the end at Jackdaws, but I still have some very happy memories of there," King says. "In fact, it would have been much worse if he had given me a three-year contract and then booted me out after one, which would have happened with the Jonjo scenario."

King got the keys to the Barbury Castle three and a half years ago and installed a 30-strong string. Since then the quality and the numbers have swollen to the point where the yard's owner, Nigel Bunter, who can also list D'Argent as his property, is about to add another 20 boxes to take the total to 94.

Self-confidence is such that King found himself competing on the Flat last summer, when he recorded places at the Dante and Guineas meetings, as well as saddling Salsalino to finish second at Royal Ascot and third in the Ebor at York. "We had a hell of a lot of fun," he says.

About 20 horses have been reserved for the Flat this year, but it is still National Hunt racing, and one particular stage, which captivates Alan King. "The Festival is fantastic, but it's the hardest thing on earth to get a winner there," he says. "It took my old boss 17 years and Josh Gifford wasn't far behind that either, and I hope to God it doesn't take me that long otherwise I might be in a mental home by then."

It is easy to wish King well. For starters, he is one of those trainers who makes the coffees himself. And, almost uniquely, he dispenses a tip. Most flannel when asked for a selection at the meeting. "Mughas," King says, "in the Coral Cup.

"I thought he ran a hell of a race in the Tote Gold Trophy [behind Geos]. He's not a two-miler and he was beaten only just short of two lengths, having jumped the last in 10th. Very few people have noticed that run."

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