Racing: Kicking King ready to renew the Taaffe legacy

A trainer with a name inseparable from the legendary Arkle saddles a new talent with huge potential. Richard Edmondson reports
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The Independent Online

If history is a motor, then those who care to oppose the favourite Kicking King in the King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day will be left behind in plumes of smoke and blue fumes.

If history is a motor, then those who care to oppose the favourite Kicking King in the King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day will be left behind in plumes of smoke and blue fumes.

Kicking King is famous enough himself, but his trainer, Tom Taaffe, transports the surname which may be spelled out in the cloudy heavens of Irish racing. Pat Taaffe may have been gone now for over 12 years, but his deeds have never diminished.

Tom Taaffe's father the was rider of Arkle and the trainer of Captain Christy. Either career would have ensured his place in Hibernia's racing shrine, but old Pat was rather greedy, and nowhere was the table more sumptuous than at Sunbury.

Arkle won the King George only once, by a distance in 1965, and it was a race which eventually removed him from the racecourse. The following year he broke a foot in the contest and never ran again. On three legs, he finished second to Dormant.

It was a time when Tom Dreaper trained monsters and horses together. "He also had Flyingbolt, and he was only a pound or two behind Arkle," Taaffe says. "The machinery then was something else. Like Martin Pipe and Paul Nicholls put together."

Taaffe Jnr barely remembers Arkle, even if he was the first horse he ever sat on. Captain Christy is much more vivid. If he was lazy enough, Tom Taaffe could watch the horses work up the gallop from the dizzyingly white lounge of his swish new home.

Just over the fence from the woodchip at Portree Stables, Straffan, in Co Kildare, it may be that a ghost is putting the present incumbents in their place. Captain Christy used to work up that strip, sharpening his fitness and sharpening his sword before he impaled some of the mighty names of the British jumping game around 30 years ago.

In 1974 at Kempton, Pendil was odds on to beat the Irish upstart and gain his third consecutive win in the race, but Captain Christy ran right away from him. The following year was even more devastating, perhaps the most devastating performance ever produced at the highest level on a British racecourse. Captain Christy set off fast and then just kept flicking up through the gears. By the end Bula was 30 lengths behind and the race record was in bits.

"Captain Christy always took a fence with him somewhere along the line, but, on his day, he was a serious horse," Taaffe says. "That first year they all had Pendil written up, but he was annihilated, beaten the length of the straight. The next year he did the same thing to Bula."

Kicking King too is already a landmark horse, even if you disregard his recent pummelling of Grade One opposition in the John Durkan Memorial Punchestown Chase. There was a substantial offer for the swift property in the wake of that victory and an almost equally fulsome refusal. "I have had horses end up in the gutter in the past and I am sure there will be plenty more that are in the gutter in the future, so you cannot get rid of the dream," Taaffe says. "And it is a dream to have a horse like him.

"What keeps the operation going is having a good horse. You can have 25 winners at Tramore or Waterford, but that is nothing compared to having just one at the top end."

Two seasons earlier, Kicking King won the four-year-old bumper at Leopardstown, on the day young Pat Taaffe, the original's grandson, was born. Tom Taaffe had only just enough time to fit in both the race and the foaling, to which he was transported by squad car.

Both the boy and the horse have grown up considerably since then. "He looks to be a far stronger horse this year than he did last year and hopefully he can improve enough to keep going the right way," Taaffe says. "He is getting stronger in all the right places. It is not often you are going to see as good a looking horse as him. And he is aware he is a good horse now."

Kicking King's more pronounced musculature convinces his trainer that the horse now has the capacity for three miles. "Stamina is not a problem," he says. "I can even spell it."

Kicking King is Taaffe's first ever runner at Kempton, though the gelding himself has already run twice in England, both times at Cheltenham and both times as a runner-up. Back In Front was his conqueror in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle at the Festival of 2003 while, earlier this year, he was just repelled by Well Chief in the Arkle Trophy.

"He's run very good races both times he's been in Cheltenham," Taaffe says. "Every time you compete at the highest level and you run that well, it's just a bonus. I look at it that way more than being disappointed that he finished second. Some of the papers say he's got to make it, but he never has to make it. He was held up in the middle in the Arkle."

There is even that symmetry with the race names, that repeating bond with history. KICKING KING (nap 2.10) is following a great line, his trainer a great lineage, and Tom Taaffe believes there will be celestial approval if the new good horse can outstay Azertyuiop and outclass the rest of the British contingent on Boxing Day.

"My father got the recognition he got through his achievements both as a jockey and then a trainer," he says. "I'm sure he is looking down on us now and I'm pretty sure he's not embarrassed by what we're doing."

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