Racing: Geraghty's art of effortless horsemanship

Would Kicking King have bettered Best Mate? Probably not, but he might well do next year
Click to follow
The Independent Online

One day at Listowel last autumn, a spectator, who may just have been talking through several froth-flecked beer glasses and undoubtedly through his pocket, gave Barry Geraghty the benefit of his informed opinion; that he'd be "nothing without Moscow Flyer". No doubt that same character would have been discovered nodding sagely at Cheltenham around 3.25pm on Friday at the spectacle of Tom Taaffe's seven-year-old Kicking King reducing National Hunt racing's centrepiece to a one-horse exhibition round, as bloodless a triumph as his jockey and trainer could have desired.

One day at Listowel last autumn, a spectator, who may just have been talking through several froth-flecked beer glasses and undoubtedly through his pocket, gave Barry Geraghty the benefit of his informed opinion; that he'd be "nothing without Moscow Flyer". No doubt that same character would have been discovered nodding sagely at Cheltenham around 3.25pm on Friday at the spectacle of Tom Taaffe's seven-year-old Kicking King reducing National Hunt racing's centrepiece to a one-horse exhibition round, as bloodless a triumph as his jockey and trainer could have desired.

You could almost hear the words being uttered: "Look at yer man Geraghty - what would he be without that Kicking King..." Presumably such rationale would have put Lester Piggott in his place, too. What would the maestro have been without Nijinsky and The Minstrel and his seven other Derby winners?

Geraghty sent his critic at Listowel on his way in customary abrasive manner, though on reflection he may have come to accept that observation as a compliment, albeit one cloaked in an insult, to those blessed with such horsemanship that they make the task look easy.

An abiding truth about the jump game, even more so than the Flat, is that even granted the optimum in horsepower beneath him, every jockey knows that his mount is only one minor lapse in concentration, one failure in his own horsemanship, from a fall, or at the very least a decisive error.

Race-riding is all so straightforward from the racecourse bar-stool or the home sofa, but as Paul Carberry demonstrated in Tuesday's Champion Hurdle, when desperately attempting subtly to coax victory from Harchibald without his mount being any the wiser - such is the horse's antipathy to hard work - it can be a frustrating, and in the case of Noel Meade's charge, an ultimately futile task.

In Boxing Day's King George at Kempton, fortune beamed down on Geraghty and Kicking King when the partnership survived such an aberration. Geraghty knew that he would not be permitted such an indulgence in a contest as pressured and, on the face of it, as competitive as the Gold Cup. This time, Kicking King's leaping was virtually impeccable. "I just dropped him in as I had no worries about the trip. There was no need to make a move. He jumped brilliantly and just dossed a bit when he hit the front."

There are those who suspected that Geraghty may have done the same after a 2003 in which he made a spectacular entrance at Cheltenham, with a five-timer at the Festival, an achievement he complemented with the Grand National triumph of Monty's Pass three weeks later.

But this was no shooting star today, trail of cinders tomorrow, despite this young man from Drumree, County Meath, being deemed a "cocky little bastard" by one of his first employers, Noel Meade. The trainer swiftly added the crucial adden-dum that he was the hardest-working employee ever to set foot in his yard.

Geraghty has matured into a fine rider, with a shrewd appreciation of the form book. Which is why we should consider soberly Geraghty's judgement about Kicking King. "He's only young and is going to be a serious horse next year," he says. "He would have beaten Best Mate today."

Well, would he? While a new champion was attending his coronation, 45 miles away "Matey" was just another out-of-training racehorse. One of the lads who lunch. Best Mate's 2005 Gold Cup day routine at Henrietta Knight's West Lockinge stable consisted of a morning feed, a wander in the paddock with a stablemate named Melford, lunch, back to his stable, and an evening feed.

It is difficult to offer comparisons between the pair, simply because the performances of the market rivals to Kicking King - Strong Flow (sixth), Celestial Gold (seventh) and Beef Or Salmon (pulled up) - were so flat. Only the runner-up, Take The Stand, who on the form book should not have anything like the flattering five lengths that he finished behind the victor and who is now poised for a tilt at the Grand National, gave Geraghty cause for concern. The fact that the winner "pissed it", in the estimation of his trainer, suggests that either his charge truly is another Arkle in the making, or the benefactor of a particularly bad Gold Cup. We are left with the suspicion that on the good ground he devours, the stage he adores, and with such a challenge thrown down by a younger rival, Best Mate would still have prevailed.

Next season may be different, though. Kicking King is a best-priced 4-1 for renewal, Best Mate 8-1. The latter looks tempting, but should be resisted. Best Mate's ebullient owner, Jim Lewis, reiterated his pre-race view that the winner was only "borrowing the trophy", but the three-time winner is 11 next year, an age when the stride can just start to shorten. Kicking King, who Taaffe concedes still displays evidence of weakness "behind the saddle", will be eight, approaching his prime.

Geraghty prays that his Gold Cup partner will return next year to this corner of Gloucestershire that will be forever Irish (if you accept the romantic interpretation of this being some kind of ritual of Anglo Saxon-Celtic rivalry, when it is actually about individual opportunism), territory occupied all the more ferociously following the nine successes of stables from across the Irish Sea.

For the moment, Geraghty savours his fortune in "riding the two best chasers in racing", Kicking King and Wednesday's Queen Mother Champion Chase victor Moscow Flyer. In a vintage period for Irish jockeys, his profile may not match that of a Tony McCoy, but at 25, he possesses the riding scope and the personality to do so - if the hunger remains.

For one so young to have already won every championship race except the Champion Hurdle, and claimed a Grand National, could be considered the tiniest bit greedy. Except, in National Hunt racing, you accept everything that comes your way gratefully and philosophically, because you never know what the future holds tomorrow. Let alone next year.

Comments