Best Mate's successor as Cheltenham Gold Cup winner, Kicking King, was standing in the rain in the bottom paddock at his Co Kildare yard on Saturday and his appearance too was rather deceptive. There was dried mud on the neck of the seven-year-old, his head was bowed and the eyes were half closed. Portrees stables near Straffan, Kicking King seems to recognise, is not the place to be expending energy.
"It's natural for the horses to be out and, like the rest of ours, he's out as much as possible," Tom Taaffe, his trainer explained. "They spend enough time in."
It is possible that the old and new champions will meet three times this season. Betfair have churned the waters of National Hunt racing this season with a bonus series and, it appears, the big beasts have been attracted. Both Best Mate and Kicking King are due to run first in the Betfair Chase at Haydock next month, followed by the King George VI Chase at Kempton and then the Gold Cup itself. Victory in all three would earn £1m.
The programme has therefore been virtually mapped out for Taaffe, though he insists it follows a natural rhythm for his gelding. "Tom goes by the horse," Elaine, the trainer's wife, said. "It would not make a difference if the horse was owned by the King of Sheba, if Tom says the horse runs on Venus that's where he would run."
This agenda means that Kicking King will run in his homeland just once this season, in the Daily Star Chase at Punchestown a week on Thursday.
The sleepy horse was framed on Saturday by the Hill of Allen, the K Club, the venue for next year's Ryder Cup, and a private graveyard for the Guinness family. If Taaffe is to be believed there will be a competitive cemetery for anything that comes up against his athlete.
"On the UK side I don't think there is a major contender for the Gold Cup," the trainer added. "On the Irish side there is possibly War Of Attrition [Mouse Morris's young horse], but he has to get a lot of water under his bridge to get there.
"My horse has made the natural progression maturity-wise that you would expect of a horse his age. This is the first time he has filled his frame and he is a lot stronger all round. We are really happy with the way he has progressed in all the right places.
"But there are still minefields all over the place. This is jumps racing and jumps horses, so you have to stay sound and avoid all the injuries and illnesses. Just look at what happened to Rule Supreme [the talented Willie Mullins gelding recently ruled out for the season]."
Another of Ireland's Gold Cup contenders set out on his campaign yesterday. Beef Or Salmon used the vehicle of the Irish Cesarewitch to unwind his limbs, running on into ninth behind Clara Allen.
On the same card, Aidan O'Brien won the Beresford Stakes for the eighth time in 10 years when Septimus came from last to first to earn a 25-1 Derby quote. Seamus Heffernan rode the winner in place of Kieren Fallon, a victim of food-poisoning on a visit to ride at Keeneland the previous evening. Fallon's absence means Darryll Holland will ride O'Brien's first runner at Windsor, Briolette in today's Harvest Stakes.
This year's Derby winner, Motivator, now faces a rematch with the Arc winner Hurricane Run in the Breeders' Cup Turf at Belmont rather than a run in the Champion Stakes at Newmarket this Saturday.
"We have done research on horses that have run in the Arc and gone on to the Champion Stakes and they have a poor record," Michael Bell, his trainer, said.
Johnny Murtagh, Motivator's regular rider, will struggle to do the weight in America. "There is a fly in the ointment in that he's only got 8st 9lb," Bell said. "It's very hard to be travelling half-way round the world and riding 2lb below your minimum weight."
Nap: Chase The Ace (Ayr 3.30)
NB: Red Peony