Santa Claus's sleigh is in the air at Yuletide, usually a nasty nip also, and the third component of high theatrics was again on show in the King George VI Chase here yesterday.
Kicking King, unusually a monarch travelling from the west at Christmas-time, was the dramatis persona. The Irish horse smashed aside all the breathing obstacles laid in his path, but also smashed into the 19th and final barrier of the three-mile journey when 10 lengths clear.
That he managed to remain in contact with both the ground and his jockey, Barry Geraghty, was perhaps the most captivating of the qualities that Kicking King exhibited yesterday. And that took some doing in view of the thumping rhythm he had set across the Middlesex landscape.
As the hounds closed on the run-in, Kicking King and Geraghty first managed to regain their joint composure and then pull away again for a two-and-a-half length success from Kingscliff and Azertyuiop. Seldom are triumph and potential disaster so close together.
"I'm one of the cool ones here," Tom Taaffe, the winning trainer, said, rather unconvincingly, in the winners' enclosure. "There's no point having a big race and having all the crowd here without a bit of drama."
It was an audience of 21,600, 20 per cent up on last year, which gathered for the traditional post-Christmas restorative. It was not the sort of beginning that Wenceslas once witnessed on this morn, but daybreak did reveal a crust of frost on the Kempton turf. By midday, though, the sun had burned away any whiteness and racing began in glorious circumstances, crisp and clear, under pale blue skies.
There then followed the emotional brazier of three of the most compelling races which can ever have opened a major card. Ollie Magern started it, fighting back to deny Trabolgan in a crackling Feltham Novices' Chase. Then came another Irish runner, Harchibald, breaching a gap of almost 25 lengths to deny the ill-starred Rooster Booster close home in the Christmas Hurdle.
After the perfect direction of these contests, it would take much for the King George to become the outstanding memory of this afternoon. That is how good it was.
There was no Best Mate for the Grade One race (he will have to answer to this marker at Leopardstown tomorrow), but the corps de ballet was of such quality that his absence seemed inconsequential by close of play.
The first four from last year's race, including First Gold, a King George winner too in his good old days, turned up for the sports. They looked a mean and keen bunch in the paddock.
If he tires of his daylight career, Kingscliff could find himself a job on any door in the country. Azertyuiop was similarly frightening, the tall horse baring his teeth as he circled. Kicking King was a wallflower by comparison, his head bowed low as if in search of loose change. The 3-1 favourite was to show his machismo on the racecourse itself.
Edredon Bleu, the winner 12 months ago, and First Gold, did the early shift after the tapes went up. The pace was not inconsiderable. Azertyuiop, a specialist at shorter distances, was given every chance to spread his excellence to this more demanding journey. In conjunction with Ruby Walsh, he did not waste a yard of ground as he scooted round on the rail.
There had been some staying questions also asked of Kicking King, yet he was sent out with aggressive intent. Taaffe's horse was ridden as if stamina was a forte rather than an imponderable and was soon in a challenging position, his ears sharply pricked.
Kicking King is a rangy horse, one which manages to get particularly low to the ground, like a rat scampering through the lamplight. By the back straight on the second circuit, Geraghty felt the time had come.
His collaborator was sent to the front and through the gears as the jockey determined to test Azertyuiop's range. "From the start I knew he was the danger," he said.
Then, though, there was another problem, apart from strong horses and strong fences, to confront. The sun was disturbingly low and the fluent vaulting which usually characterises Kicking King's efforts disappeared. "Down the back straight it was very bad," Geraghty reported. "You could barely see the fences. He missed a couple for that reason. I couldn't measure a stride or organise him."
The view was more pleasurable once the partnership turned in for the last three. Geraghty looked round and all that was there was a toiling Azertyuiop. All he had to do was negotiate the final fence. That was all. The rider took a heavy pull to correct his conveyance, but, for once, the partnership was not at one. They blasted through the obstacle.
"Because of the mistakes he made down the back he was tiring," Geraghty said. "I wouldn't say he didn't get the trip, because he did, but he was tired. I got hold of him and he just galloped into it. I knew it was a bad blunder and I was going to do well to hold on. Thankfully he was still there under me at the far side. I did get an initial fright. That's what you feel. Fear. Then you just grab anything with hair."
One final problem remained. Just at the moment rider and mount regained their equilibrium, a man dressed as Father Christmas ran across the track, a matter of yards from Kicking King's snout. He was arrested, but the leader was not. Geraghty's concentration on survival was such that he did not see the interloper. When asked about the incident, he said he did not believe in Santa Claus. Or his presence at least.
Taaffe pretended indifference about the last-fence blunder in the aftermath, but his emotions were scrambled at the time. "How the horse stood up I'll never know," he said. "He's never missed a fence as badly as that before. How Barry stayed on him I'll never know either. I don't know who was praying for him, but somebody was because he looked as though he was going out the right-hand-side door. I thought the horse was beaten and it takes a fair one to get going again and get his momentum back up."
Andrew Thornton, on Kingscliff, asked: "Where was a hill when I needed one?" Kingscliff, did not quite have sufficient competitive edge after almost a year off the track. Azertyuiop, a length and a quarter back in third, was sharp enough, but this was a trek too far. Walsh said he knew four fences from home that his challenge was petering out.
Kicking King's story, however, looks set to run and run, much the same as that of the family of his trainer. Pat Taaffe, Tom Taaffe's father, will be forever legend in Irish training, as the jockey of Arkle, who collected the 1965 King George, and trainer of Captain Christy, a dual winner in 1974 and 1975.
Now another great yarn continues, and Tom Taaffe is on the way to cultivating another branch of excellence on the family tree. Kicking King will not run again before Cheltenham and it may be that on the greatest stage of all in the spring he will contest the greatest National Hunt conditions race of them all.
"I feel very proud for my parents that I was able to achieve something like this," the trainer said. "Good ground is a huge thing for this horse because of his stride, his galloping and his jumping. If it's good ground [at Cheltenham] and Best Mate looks like the only real live contender then maybe we might have a shot at the Gold Cup."Reuse content