Racing: King prepares a challenge fit for a Queen
The wind slashed furiously across the downs but it lacked the bitter edge of other winters here. In the yard itself, huddled in a hollow, yesterday was again mild and damp and many of the horses could evoke Cheltenham as tangibly as the first snowdrops do the spring.
Halfway through his seventh season at Barbury Castle, Alan King has restored this ancient fastness as home to a rampant cavalry. And though the Festival is still nine weeks away, he is already marshalling their decisive engagement of the campaign.
They include the spectacular My Way De Solzen, but for the purposes of this visit, their standard bearer is Voy Por Ustedes. As favourite for the Queen Mother Champion Chase, he had prompted the Cheltenham management to come here to proclaim a four-year sponsorship contract with Seasons Holidays - the first in the race's history. Certainly it is hard to imagine any such deal being brokered while the Queen Mother was still alive, or indeed Royal Ascot taking the cue to announce the Times Change Timeshare St James's Palace Stakes.
It may seem no more respectful to talk already of the new champion trainer some day being usurped by a real King, but Paul Nicholls himself has identified his friend and rival as a likely successor. Having moved up to sixth in the table last season, King already seems guaranteed a place in the top five this time - though quite where depends on the fortunes of his biggest Festival team to date.
Voy Por Ustedes himself will warm up in the Game Spirit Chase at Newbury on 10 February. "We gave him a couple of weeks off after his win at Kempton over Christmas, and he only started cantering again yesterday," King said. "We wouldn't want to miss Newbury for any reason, because it doesn't take much work to bring him to the boil. Once he's there, he needs a race just to quieten him down. When one of the races we had targeted for him last season was postponed he didn't know which end his head was on."
My Way De Solzen has already won at the Festival - over hurdles last season - and confirmed his relish for the venue when producing a dazzling round of jumping there on New Year's Day. He is to be entered for the SunAlliance Chase, after all, despite King's reluctance to expose him to a slog over three miles. In soft ground he would remain eligible for the Irish Independent Arkle Trophy, over two, with the Ryanair Chase an intermediate alternative. King hopes that it will be easier to choose after his next run - back over two miles at one of the dizziest courses in the land, Warwick.
"Yes, it is sharp, but it's a jumping track," he reasoned. "And if he can't cope there, he certainly won't be winning any Arkles. The SunAlliance entry is simply to keep all options open, because the Ryanair might be a very hot race."
Also at a crossroads is Halcon Genelardais, who consummated an expert plot in the Welsh National and will now meet Our Vic in the Letheby & Christopher Chase at Cheltenham on 27 January.
"Hopefully that will tell us whether to seriously consider the Gold Cup," King said. "I must say it would have to be soft for that to happen. If not, there are races like the Midlands National for him - he won't be entered at Aintree - but he is certainly one of the most improved horses in the yard. He's much stronger and fresher. Last season we were pretty hard on him, and this time round he doesn't seem to be hitting that flat spot."
On course for Chelten-ham's final meeting before the Festival is Katchit, whose march towards the JCB Triumph Hurdle has astonished his trainer. "I thought it quite an achievement to get him to win at Market Rasen, but he has got his confidence now," he said. "His latest win was probably his easiest."
But it was Voy Por Ustedes who dominated proceedings yesterday. King reflected that he has cherished hectic chasers like this since his days with the late David Nicholson, who trained Viking Flagship among others.
"I do miss 'the Duke' greatly," he said. "I often think on the way home from racing that it would be nice to have a chat. He'd be so pleased the way things have turned out here."
Nap: Rapid City
NB: Sun Catcher
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