The start of a champion's title defence is always an occasion of note, and Kicking King is reported by his trainer, Tom Taaffe, in rude health ahead of his return to the fray at Punchestown tomorrow. But contenders for the staying-chasers' crown he took so decisively with his victories in the King George VI Chase and Cheltenham Gold Cup are starting to peel off their sweatshirts and jogging pants.
Trabolgan, for instance, last season's best home-trained novice in the division, did his first serious piece of work yesterday morning. The Nicky Henderson-trained seven-year-old, winner of the Royal & SunAlliance Chase at Cheltenham, is one of the thrusters in the mix for top honours.
Henderson and Trabolgan's owner, Trevor Hemmings, face a dilemma, though. The Captain Sensible route is to start their young star's campaign half-way up the ladder, in an intermediate chase at Sandown at the start of December, a route the trainer has tried and tested with Bacchanal and Calling Brave. But there is a siren call distracting them, the bonus of a cool £1m to the horse who can win the new Betfair Chase at Haydock in November, the King George, to be run at Sandown this year, and Gold Cup.
Kicking King, obviously, has it in his sights; so do the Best Mate team and every other three-mile chaser with more than three legs. "These bonuses are great," said Henderson yesterday. "£1m is a wonderful carrot, a trainer's dream. But sometimes they're a trainer's nightmare, leading you to do something you should not.
"I know Trabolgan will have to take on Kicking King in the King George, but I'd rather he had a less ambitious prep, particularly one that will give him experience at that track. To start off against the big boys is a huge ask, and I'd like to protect him. But he has to meet them sometime, and Trevor is a big fan of Haydock, his local track. We've discussed it, but not reached a decision. This carrot makes it difficult."
Trabolgan won the Cheltenham novices' feature, his owner's first Festival success, on only his fourth start over fences, and the 11th of his life. "He's always been an unfurnished sort of horse," added Henderson, "which is why he's had only a few races each season. But he's come back from his summer break looking bigger and stronger than I've seen him before, and I hope that will give us the chance to do a bit more with him this time."
Henderson is also perched on a pair of horns as far as Hemmings's other young chaser, Juveigneur, is concerned. The eight-year-old was bought from France as a long-term Grand National prospect, but after winning the Kim Muir at Cheltenham flopped in the Topham Chase at Aintree. "The Hennessy Gold Cup would be absolutely his race," said the master of Seven Barrows, "but if he is to have the National as his target, he should run in the Becher Chase the week before Newbury to get practice over those fences. And he can't do both."
Juveigneur came close last term to landing Henderson another of those pesky carrots, the £250,000 on offer to any Cheltenham winner who could take the Betfred Gold Cup. "He landed over the last in the lead, and I was doing my sums and coming up with nearly £400,000. Then that thing from Ireland [Jack High] shot past and all of a sudden we were back to £30,000."
If Henderson goes down the Sandown route with Trabolgan, he is likely to come up against My Will, from the Paul Nicholls yard, and possibly Comply Or Die, nominated by his owner, David Johnson, as his best prospect among his second-season staying chasers. The six-year-old was second in the Royal & SunAlliance. "I know he's young, and maybe we did a bit too much with him last season," said Johnson, "but I think he'd be my King George horse. Our Vic might have been, but he never showed on the track what he showed us at home and that fall he had at Cheltenham [in December] really shook him. He's rated only 123 over hurdles, though. Now there's a thought."
The first of the princes to have a go at Kicking King will be War Of Attrition, one of Ireland's best last-term novices, at Punchestown tomorrow. The monarch is ready, though. "He's in super form," said Taaffe yesterday. "He wouldn't be 100 per cent, but I think he's further forward than when he won first time out last year. If all goes well it will be on to Haydock." Let the games begin.
NB: Brave Fight