Racing: Kicking King forced into battle to secure his place in history
Tuesday 27 December 2005
The script, and much of the performance, was the stuff of epic - even if the denouement, in the event, was rather more kitchen sink. In fact, that was just about the only thing that Barry Geraghty did not have to throw at Kicking King as Monkerhostin launched an unlikely challenge on the climb to the post here.
Nevertheless, their narrow success in the King George VI Chase was enough to nourish an unassuming air of destiny in his trainer. Tom Taaffe's father, Pat, won the race 40 years ago on the mighty Arkle, and then saddled Captain Christy to win it in 1974 and 1975. Now, with perfect symmetry, Taaffe has satisfied himself that the horse who took the prize back to Ireland last year, is truly worthy of that legacy.
"There have been lots of horses win the Gold Cup once, or the King George once," Taaffe reflected afterwards. "But at Cheltenham in March I thought Kicking King won in the style of a champion, even if he didn't necessarily beat a championship field. Now that he has come back and won a second King George, I feel he has proved he belongs with the real horses."
Last year, at Kempton, only a last-fence blunder had diluted the authority of his success, but here Taaffe was simply relieved that Kicking King had begun to restore his dominion after defeat in both his starts this autumn. He had needed the run on his comeback at Punchestown, and then finished sore after twisting a shoe at Haydock.
But his performance this time did not lack equivocation, as can be judged by the bookmakers' reaction. Coral cut him to 5-4 from 2-1 to retain the Gold Cup, whereas William Hill offer 9-4.
The fact is that his most serious rival, Kingscliff, was already out of contention with a circuit to run, palpably amiss following a mistake at the ditch in front of the stands. And Monkerhostin, dismissed at 22-1 beforehand, pursued him up the hill with such hostility that the post came only just in time to preserve his diminishing advantage at a neck.
On the other hand, throughout the race Kicking King had always been travelling and jumping with more panache than any of his rivals. Indeed, entering the back stretch for a final time Geraghty felt obliged to rein him back, so eager was the horse to show those in front how to deal properly with the seven famous fences there. This dizzy sequence has a habit of destroying the rhythm and confidence of lesser animals, but to Kicking King it offered an irresistible invitation. He barely broke stride and by the time they were turning for home he had skipped upsides the leader, Impek.
Geraghty finally let him take up the running with just the two fences in the straight to jump - and it was the undiminished energy with which he tackled these that not only secured him against Monkerhostin, but also revealed the comfort with which he had mastered the rest. Even so, there is no denying that he was having his collar felt pretty roughly by a horse that would have been receiving 18lb in a handicap.
Taaffe promised a different horse at Cheltenham, arguing that Tony McCoy had distorted the relative merits of the field by taking them along so slowly on Impek, whose limited reserves of stamina ran dry on the hill regardless. "They should go a better gallop at Cheltenham, for one thing," he said. "Anyhow, I feel we have been a bit cheeky trying to get him back from Haydock in time to come here. Luckily we got away with it. When we went there I knew I couldn't have him in better form, and it just didn't add up the way he ran. It took me a while to realise how sore he was.
"He was so down in himself for nine or 10 days afterwards, because he always gives of himself. There was no spirit in him. If he had not shown any life when we worked him, we would never have come here. But I have always been straightforward when it comes to making excuses, and I feel vindicated in that today."
Philip Hobbs, trainer of the runner-up, did not conceal his astonishment that he had run quite as well as he did, but will now start treating him rather differently. "We didn't quite know if he would get the trip, but now it looks as though he has been crying out for it," he said.
But while Taaffe paid decorous tribute to Monkerhostin, he will not, apparently, be losing much sleep over a rematch. "I hope you'll see a better horse in the spring," he said. "You certainly won't see him again before Cheltenham. I want to give him a proper break now, to see him come back to himself - to really see him bloom."
GOLD CUP (Cheltenham, 17 March) Tote: 11-8 (from 2-1) Kicking King, 6-1 (from 11-4) Kingscliff, 10-1 Beef Or Salmon, Monkerhostin (from 25-1), 16-1 others.
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