Cheltenham Festival:

Racing: Exit the golden king, enter Kingscliff

Stamina and pace point to King George runner-up as inheritor of stricken champion's mantle

Given the fact that the Cheltenham grandstand was once used as a hospital for troops, the physical vicissitudes of the leading contenders for the 77th Gold Cup may be considered entirely appropriate. In the build-up to the Festival showpiece, the notion of "last man standing" has applied not so much to the finish as to the line-up at the start. Of the leading contenders left after Best Mate's defection, the favourite, Kingscliff, has recovered from a fractured cannon bone, second favourite Strong Flow has come back after breaking a knee, Irish raider Kicking King has risen, Lazarus-like, from his sickbed and Grey Abbey's suspect front joint is under daily scrutiny.

But once a horse gets to the stage of facing the tapes, it is the engine, not the bodywork, that must come under scrutiny. The winner must have enough revs to gallop for just over three-and-a- quarter miles, jump 22 fences, and then, crucially, engage overdrive for the final, fuel-sapping, climb to the winning post. The race's origins as a stepping stone to the Grand National ensure that stamina is at a premium in a contest that is regarded as the campaign championship.

The key to this year's renewal may be the other of the season's twin peaks (and one that identifies the best staying chaser as often as does the Gold Cup), the King George VI Chase. Kicking King survived a horrendous mistake at the last fence to identify himself as the coming force in the division, and victory would produce the requisite tug at the heartstrings; Tom Taaffe, his trainer, is the son of Pat, who rode Arkle to his three Gold Cup victories, of which the middle one came exactly 40 years ago.

The style of running of the seven-year-old Kicking King is exhilarating, his battle cry in the second half of his races seems to be, "Catch me if you can". Nothing could at Kempton, his first victory on his second try at three miles, but such tactics may leave him vulnerable over the extra quarter-mile on Friday.

There are no such doubts surrounding the King George VI runner-up, Kingscliff. The eight-year-old has already won twice over the Gold Cup trip at Cheltenham, notably in the Foxhunters' at the Festival two years ago. At Kempton, on his first run for 11 months and on a flat, fast track that did not play to his strengths, he was staying on strongly after catching his second wind in the straight.

Against him is the fact that Friday's test will be only his fifth race in open company (he previously won three point-to-points and two hunter chases) and no horse of such limited mileage has ever won a Gold Cup. Nor has a winner of the Foxhunters', though the surprise 1998 Gold Cup hero Cool Dawn, like Kingscliff trained and ridden by Robert Alner and Andy Thornton respectively, finished second in the hunters' race.

Strong Flow, a markedly impressive jumper, seemed to have the world at his feet before injury sidelined him, but looked right back to his progressive best on his first run over fences for 14 months at Newbury last month. Celestial Gold, who followed him on the Hennessy Gold Cup roll of honour, is another youngster on an upward curve. Rule Supreme's target has yet to be established - he is also in the long-distance hurdle on Thursday - but in contrast to many of the Gold Cup runners, he appears to have been hewn, rather than foaled.

The ground is nigh-on perfect, with no extremes forecast, but if the rain arrives then Grey Abbey, trailblazing winner of the Pillar Chase, must enter calculations. He has improved this season, at the age of 11, and though he is essentially a high-class plodder who needs testing ground to blunt his rivals' speed, such horses can win Gold Cups. Kingscliff, though, is the one who seems to possess both stamina and acceleration and can lay down the marker for the post-Best Mate era.

The only one of the four senior champions returning to defend his title is Hardy Eustace, in the 74th Champion Hurdle on Tuesday. That race does seem to be easier to win more than once, with five triples and seven doubles in the record books, but this year's renewal looks tougher than that 12 months ago. The betting has been dominated by Irish-trained horses, and the form book says there is not much between the principal contenders. Hardy Eustace will defend with honour but Back In Front, winner of the Supreme Novices' Hurdle at the Festival two years ago and the Bula at the track in December, can live up to his name. The home defence is thin, but Royal Shakespeare could prove best of the outsiders.

Wednesday's highlight, the Queen Mother Champion Chase, should provide an epic spectacle, featuring as it does the confrontation between the three highest-rated chasers in training: Moscow Flyer, Azertyuiop and Well Chief. Each has his superb qualities: the 11-year-old Moscow Flyer is unbeaten in completed chases; the eight-year-old Azertyuiop is a superb jumper, the best of the trio; and the six-year-old Well Chief makes up for his small stature with his gritty attitude in a finish. The record books say that the two-mile crown is harder to regain (only one horse has done so, Royal Relief in 1974) than retain, of which there have been nine instances. Azertyuiop can make it 10.

The four-day format leaves Thursday's stage clear for the marathon men. No horse has won the race formerly known as the Stayers' Hurdle (now with the Ladbrokes World prefix) more than twice; the mighty Baracouda was thwarted in his attempt at the hat-trick by Iris's Gift 12 months ago. The French superstar, for the past three seasons the highest-rated hurdler in any division, will be trying to put the record straight, but judged by his form this year he is not as good as he was. The two victories came in highly tactical affairs, and with a proper pace guaranteed he may still be good enough. But he is a notoriously tricky ride, and each-way value may be found in Korelo.

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