Even in triumph here, Voy Por Ustedes could not quite claim the stage for himself. Instead he was preceded across the line by a loose horse, an incarnation of the phantoms against whom he would inevitably be measured.
For one thing, the success of Halcon Genelardais at Chepstow ensured that he was not even the most productive contributor to an indelible half-hour for their trainer, Alan King. This, moreover, was the Desert Orchid Chase, and the life of steeplechasing's grey eminence - which ended last month after 27 years - had been honoured in a ceremony just before the race. And, of course, there was also Kauto Star, theatrical winner of the King George VI Chase here the previous afternoon.
It was Kauto Star's swaggering defeat of Voy Por Ustedes at Sandown earlier in the month that had invited fresh comparisons with Desert Orchid, as he had now won successive Grade One prizes over three miles and two. Of course, those who clustered reverently round the grey's statue yesterday may prefer to wait for Boxing Day 2009, the earliest Kauto Star can win himself a fourth King George, before endorsing the comparison. But the fact remains that the horse who has discovered his métier over longer distances retained enough speed at Sandown to bound away from a specialist over two miles. And yesterday Voy Por Ustedes proved himself so proficient at the distance that he is now 3-1 favourite with Stan James for the Queen Mother Champion Chase.
In terms of galloping ability, Kauto Star has shown that he can beat any other steeplechaser in Britain with a leg tied up - with the single, critical proviso that he does not keep jumping fences as though he has the other three tied together. Not to be outdone, Robert Thornton came as close as possible to demonstrating that Voy Por Ustedes, in turn, was so superior to his four rivals here that he could ride him with his arm in a sling. Last Thursday Thornton feared that he had broken a collarbone in a fall at Exeter. As things turned out, he had merely aggravated an old injury. According to King, his stable jockey's shoulder is held together by "gristle". This dubious adhesive proved sufficient to sustain 75 press-ups in front of a specialist, and another half dozen - together, in Thornton's own words, with "a poke and a prod" - at lunchtime persuaded the course doctor that he was fit to ride.
Certainly there was no sign of discomfort as Thornton drove Voy Por Ustedes five lengths clear of Oneway. If they were helped home by Armaturk, who had discarded Sam Thomas in spectacular fashion with a circuit to run, then his assistance was long overdue. The riderless horse had dived left over every fence, tempting Voy Por Ustedes after him every time, and Thornton blamed this distraction for his mount's sole jumping error, at the eighth.
"It was a great relief when 'Choc' was passed fit," King admitted. "This horse does take a bit of knowing, and we were struggling a bit. But he got through all the tests without flinching, and he's far too professional to be taking a chance in a situation like this. The one thing we wanted was a true-run race, and we could have done with Armaturk lasting a bit longer. But it's turned out a great afternoon for the whole team. It won't sink in until later, I expect, but I feel another hangover coming on."
The toast at Barbury Castle will be shared by Halcon Genelardais, who had been sheltered from the handicapper by warming up over hurdles and ran out a dour winner of the Coral Welsh National. "This race has been the plan since last spring," King said. "Soft ground is important to him, and he won't be going to Aintree. He has only had five runs over fences, and I think he is a better horse this season. I may even put him in the Gold Cup."
King was especially pleased for Thornton's hard-working understudy, Wayne Hutchinson, riding his biggest success to date. As for Voy Por Ustedes, he will prepare for Cheltenham in the Game Spirit Chase at Newbury in February, on the same card as the Aon Chase - the most likely rehearsal for Kauto Star. In contrast Nicky Richards does not feel in a position to make any plans for Monet's Garden, who faded so tamely into sixth in the King George. "We can take a beating," the trainer said yesterday. "But that wasn't the real Monet's Garden. Nothing has really come to light. He was stiff after the race but that hasn't really come to anything. Tony Dobbin said with a circuit to go he just wasn't getting the right vibe. He'll be back."
The other big Boxing Day turkey was Straw Bear, whose tepid performance in the Christmas Hurdle so alarmed Nick Gifford that he withdrew Killaghy Castle from the Stan James Wayward Lad Novices' Chase on yesterday's card. In his absence Jack The Giant entered contention for the Irish Independent Arkle Trophy with his third consecutive success, though the improvement he still needs to find is measured by Blue Square at 20-1.
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