Racing: Hunting for glory

Far from the clinical atmosphere of some racing stables, Kingscliff has been prepared for Boxing Day's King George Vi Chase By galloping to hounds. Chris McGrath observes traditional methods at work

Is training racehorses in the 21st century an art or a science? Certainly, it is easier to picture some trainers in a lab coat than in breeches. In the wrong hands Kingscliff might well have been lost among some endless cavalry, hammering up and down a hill in timed intervals. His character, and so his talent, might have been reduced to some digital matrix, the latent possibilities of his flesh and blood suppressed by an industrial culture of tests and precision and secrecy. In the words of his owner, Arnie Sendell: "He wouldn't last five minutes in some yards. He's such a lazy bugger, he would be bored out of his mind."

As it is, Kingscliff spent Wednesday preparing for the most important assignment of his career as part of an exquisite pastoral tableau, following a pack of hounds round the voluptuous Dorset landscape of the Blackmore Vale. Ridden by his trainer, Robert Alner, he joined a field of over 60 horses with the Portman Hunt, nimbly negotiating the twin obstacles presented by the landscape and the law. As usual, discretion was the better part of valour, and Alner did not invite him over any five-bar gates. As usual, however, Kingscliff returned to his stable with his ego replenished, an effulgence of power and satisfaction shining through the mud clinging to his flanks.

And the fact is that this quaint regime has qualified him, following the recent loss of Best Mate, as the most eminent steeplechaser in Britain. He is the leading home contender for the King George VI Chase at Sandown on Monday, the most important prize contested over fences before the Cheltenham Gold Cup itself. The favourite remains Kicking King, winner of both races last season, but Kingscliff gave the Irish champion a good hiding at Haydock last month and their present graph lines seem to be heading in very different directions.

Ironically, moreover, his success at Haydock identified him as the only candidate for a new £1m bonus, offered by Betfair to any horse that could also win at Sandown and Cheltenham. This is exactly the kind of reward that might drive a more mercantile, self-consciously modern racing stable. To the people involved with Kingscliff, however, it has instead presented an opportunity to make a vivid stand on other values, on other ways of seeing and doing things.

On Wednesday the Portman met on Alner's very doorstep, at Locketts Farm. For three generations this had been home to the family's dairy herd, but a decade ago he abandoned what had become an increasingly unequal struggle. Whereas the cows had once funded the horses, it was now the other way round. By promptly winning the 1998 Gold Cup with Cool Dawn, Alner showed that stockmanship could still be a match for the laboratories of other yards. In the 2004 running he saddled Sir Rembrandt, who very nearly had the impudence to catch Best Mate, his staunch finish failing by just half a length.

Kingscliff himself was a stronger fancy last season, so much so that an agent offered £750,000 for him. Sendell accepted, but the reproaches of his family and a sleepless night prompted him to ring Alner at 5.45am and cancel the deal. Kingscliff immediately went wrong and had to miss the race. "But I did not regret changing my mind, not for one minute," Sendell insists. "I'm not a rich man, I'm just a bloke from down the road. But there was too much of me in this horse."

And here he was on Wednesday, a spry septuagenarian, exulting in the fellowship of the occasion, exchanging mischievous banter with his friends as horseboxes began to fill the muddy lanes around the farm. Out of the first car to arrive stepped a woman with red tinsel round her hat, calling herself all sorts of names. "I can't believe it," she said. "I've left 10 dozen sausage rolls on the kitchen table." This looked as though it might be particularly bad news for Terry Selby, the noted point-to-point authority, when he rolled into sight. "Look at you!" Sendell said. "If you fell over you'd rock yourself to sleep trying to stand up."

But there were still trays of mince pies, and port. Those with mounts arrived in varying degrees of splendour. One rosy man walked past, his helmet under his arm, immaculate from shiny boot to cream cravat. A single, persistent straw sniggered from his hair.

Here were the master and whips, swaggering in scarlet, so flagrantly bewitched by their glamour that none would dream of wearing a chinstrap. The hounds dashed around in skittish excitement. One bounded up to lick a small girl on the face but succeeded only in pushing her into a bush, to general merriment. Fortunately the pack managed to resist the woman who appeared to be wearing a fox on her head.

"Looks a real black-hedge day," someone said. "Be a few spares [riderless horses] out there. Let's hope they all come back in one piece."

As it happens, a QC would later be taken to hospital by helicopter. Some of the riders were better qualified for the adventures ahead: Charlie Mann, also a racehorse trainer, and his stable jockey, Noel Fehily, for instance, as well as a delightful young Irishman who is making his name on the racecourse - albeit he shall not have it repeated here, as later in the day his flask would be empty and his emotions overflowing.

And here at last was Kingscliff himself. At 62, Alner remains an elegant rider, his wry, calm nature reflected in the quietness of his seat. Kingscliff, too, seemed placid but engaged as they joined the field.

Physically, the horse looks in terrific shape, at the height of his powers. Robert Walford, the jockey whose fractured collarbone requires him to surrender Kingscliff to Tony Dobbin on Monday, watched him with stoic admiration. "He's in the form of his life," he said. "So often in the past he has had little niggling problems at the wrong stage, but everything has gone right this time."

Sendell has often recounted how he literally bought the horse out of a field in Athenry, Co Galway. At the time he was raw, tall, weak. Nowadays Kingscliff has immense bone and presence, but none of the cumbersome top-heaviness you often get in these slow-maturing steeplechasers. Among the gross hunters, in fact, he lost all impression of bulk.

Having emerged from Athenry, the setting for a great anthem of the diaspora, Kingscliff now finds himself rallying a community that feels exiled even on its own soil. The local church here is one of only three in the country dedicated to Eustace, the patron saint of hunting, who was converted by a vision of the crucifix between the antlers of a stag.

The master addressed the meet, noting that they would be hunting within the law as always. There was comic and freakish testimony when a fox suddenly hurtled out of the kitchen garden and across the adjacent field, utterly disregarded by the hounds. Naturally he might not always be so fortunate, as you cannot tell a draghound that some scents are less legal than others, though hunts and police are seeking mutual respect in the way such issues are tackled. The important thing, so far as Kingscliff is concerned, is that a day like this distils in its purest form the original spirit of the steeplechase - riding cross-country, literally from point to point, by the shortest means practicable. In the hunting field, such sport is heightened by its random nature.

In the event, that tends to mean quite a lot of standing about or going round in circles. For Kingscliff, however, this represents a form of physical exercise that anciently predates interval training, and provides far greater mental stimulation.

It doubtless represented a more taxing examination for Charlie, the young man showing astounding stamina running on the tail of the field. "He works in London all week. It's the only exercise he gets," someone volunteered. A little later a car pulls up containing a dazzling blonde, who says that she has taken pity on Charlie and given him her horse. No wonder he was running so hard.

Following the hunt by car, though certainly sociable, seems profoundly pointless. A procession of quadbikes, bicycles and four-wheel drives follows distant horns, and there is a lot of turning round. These are some of the loneliest lanes in all England, and the driver of one stray vehicle does not seem impressed as he is thanked for allowing the field to pass. "Oh, don't look so miserable," the exasperated master adds. "It's Christmas!"

From the top of Bulbarrow Hill, half of Dorset sways into view. It is a breathtaking sight, even on this dank day, the shortest of the year, when a stray echo of silvery light has somehow found its way into a gleaming corner of watery mud half a mile away. Blue mist clings to the rivers. After a couple of hours, Alner decides to take Kingscliff home, his purpose achieved. Walford, who has also taken him hunting, explains that he would only have jumped a few hedges, and the very lowest fixed obstacles. Though very light on his feet for a horse of 17.2 hands, there would be no point looking for trouble.

Kingscliff is hosed down, pampered, rugged up. Outside his box hangs an enormous clump of mistletoe, a cheerfully pagan sight. The winter solstice is older than Christmas, after all, just as hunting is older than steeplechasing. Times change, and not always for the worse - but these rituals, in whatever coppiced form they must survive, certainly retain enduring purpose for Kingscliff. "He'd be bored stiff if he didn't get out hunting," Walford emphasised.

Alner himself shares the sense of elegy Hardy discovered in this uplifting, magnificent landscape. Reflecting on the changing life of the countryside, he told me: "Generation after generation, people say that they have enjoyed the best of times, that it can never be as good again. But I really do feel that way."

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