Racing: Doumen's touch can resurrect First Gold

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The Independent Online

Eight horses will go to post today for the most therapeutic contest in the racing calendar, the King George VI Chase at Kempton. It is an average field for the King George – only twice have contestants numbered double figures since Desert Orchid won the first of his quartet in 1986 – but we will almost certainly see a far from mediocre spectacle.

Eight horses will go to post today for the most therapeutic contest in the racing calendar, the King George VI Chase at Kempton. It is an average field for the King George – only twice have contestants numbered double figures since Desert Orchid won the first of his quartet in 1986 – but we will almost certainly see a far from mediocre spectacle.

King George day is an immediate restorative physically, and invariably also feeds the spirit with races which have a near choreographed splendour about them. Post Dessie, there have been the dramas of Barton Bank's last-fence fall for the benefit of Algan, the One Man years and the most recent memory, 12 months ago, of a near flawless performance from First Gold.

It seems rather odd to record, in the wake of that devastating success – the French horse won by 10 lengths from Florida Pearl and there were a further 11 back to Bellator – that First Gold has now lost his last three races.

Most recently he was third over hurdles at Newbury, a defeat which perplexed just about everyone but the gelding's trainer, François Doumen. The Frenchman, who will be attempting to equal Fulke Walwyn's record of six King George victories, explained this display recently to a bunch of visiting journalists deep in the Chantilly forests.

Something may have been lost in the translation, but his revision of the Newbury race sounded suspiciously like the French version of "not off". Certainly, Doumen now believes First Gold to be back to his crushing best of 12 months ago, a thought which dismays connections of the opposition.

"First Gold was very impressive last year," Henrietta Knight, the trainer of the second favourite, Best Mate, says. "If he reproduces that form, he will be very difficult to beat, no matter how good Best Mate is,"

Best Mate will have the best man in the saddle today, and it was that same man, Tony McCoy, on Wahiba Sands, who undermined the big horse at Ascot last time out. That form was upheld by the winner, back at Ascot, on Saturday. Now Best Mate must extend his brilliance to three miles over fences for the first time.

"There are a lot of 'ifs' and a lot of other good horses in the race," concedes Knight. "First Gold is a very good horse and so is Bacchanal. Matey hasn't been three miles in public other than a point-to-point in Ireland. I have no doubts in my mind that he will get the trip, but there are a lot of 'ifs' and he is only a young horse. He's only a second-season chaser who has had five chases in his life.

"But he ran a wonderful race with a lot of weight [against Wahiba Sands at Ascot]. He probably learned a lot because he had to be racing for most of the time. He has never really raced from start to finish like that."

Bacchanal's time in winning the Feltham Novices' Chase on the King George card last year was four seconds slower than that of First Gold. Nicky Henderson's seven-year-old has now compiled a record of three wins from four attempts over fences, victories completed in particularly small fields. Five is the largest number of opponents he has beaten over the larger obstacles. Like Best Mate, he is still in the learning stage, tie askew behind an inkwell.

"It's a very competitive King George and a very open one, I think," says Henderson. "If First Gold is back to the horse he was in the King George last year, when I thought he was brilliant, then we are all in trouble. And if Best Mate can show his speed over three miles then we are all in even bigger trouble.

"On good ground we're certainly in trouble. We need rain. Having said that, it was good ground when Bacchanal won the Stayers' Hurdle [last year], so good that I begged Madeleine [Lady Lloyd Webber] the night before not to run him."

Florida Pearl is back for another go after a reputation-rescuing success at Punchestown, but he barely stays this trip in top company, never mind the extra distance of the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Connections are becoming a bit stubborn about this fact as the horse's career drifts by. He looks avoidable.

The Flat-bred Legal Right appears a more solid proposition even if he is one of the most brittle horses in training. In the aftermath of the Tommy Whittle Chase at Haydock, McCoy said he would desert the gelding only with a heavy heart. There are place options for him here, but he is not the winner.

That distinction should belong to a horse who can continue a startling sequence in the King George. Three miles at screaming pace around the Kempton flatlands is a specialist assignment, so much so that the Christmas highlight lends itself most easily to repeat winners. In recent times we have had Desert Orchid, The Fellow, One Man and See More Business and we are on the verge of another. While the halls are decked, the deck is stacked today in favour of the only previous winner of the King George, in favour of FIRST GOLD (nap 2.20).

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