Racing: Kingscliff aimed at King George upset

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The Independent Online

Forget the decking of the halls, the visit to the grotto, the spending of ludicrous amounts on unwanted tat.

Forget the decking of the halls, the visit to the grotto, the spending of ludicrous amounts on unwanted tat. The countdown to the festive season began yesterday with the penultimate declarations for racing's Boxing Day showpiece, the King George VI Chase. Sixteen names remain to be conjured with, among them that of a horse, Kingscliff, who will be trying to boldly go where none has gone before. In 53 runnings of the great three-miler, no winner has triumphed on his seasonal debut.

That statistic will not be particularly welcomed by those who backed Kingscliff to as low as 8-1 last week. Nor will the reservations expressed by trainer Robert Alner about his charge's readiness for the fray for the seven-year-old has not run since losing his unbeaten record at Haydock in January. He returned from the race carrying a shoulder injury and no sooner was that problem successfully dealt with than he suffered a further setback, a bruised hock. "Usually he is a horse who comes back in pretty early, but by the time he had got over that second injury he was pretty unfit, and it has just taken time to get him right," said Alner yesterday. "But no matter how fit you get them at home, there's nothing like a race to get them to 100 per cent, so that's why I'm trying not to get my hopes up too much."

Kingscliff's owner, 72-year-old retired electrical engineer Arnie Sendell, once turned down an offer of £500,000 from one of the West Country's biggest owners for the horse he bought for peanuts out of an Irish field as a three-year-old.

Kingscliff's only public sightings since January have been in the hunting fields of Dorset. He is a huge horse - he stands nearly 18 hands - but the benefits of his early upbringing in a sport horse yard were evident at Ascot in November last year, when he carried Andrew Thornton to victory despite a rein breaking after three fences. Thornton was in the saddle again last week for a schooling session.

"The horse is not a spectacular jumper, he's just sensible," said Alner. "He likes to go out hunting and takes a great deal of interest. He can go fast when he needs to and slow when he needs to; he's not a difficult ride by any means. He is just an easy horse to deal with. It took a while to find the muscle damage in his shoulder after Haydock, it was very deep-seated, but he hasn't had a problem with it again since."

Kingcliff's belated start to the campaign will be his first race at Grade 1 level on the way to the Gold Cup, in which his stablemate Sir Rembrandt ran Best Mate so close in March. "It's going to be a big ask to beat some good horses on his first run," said Alner. "But at least it looks like the weather might help us. Every drop of rain we get will be welcomed."

Best Mate, the King George winner two years ago, is among the declarations, but only as a safety net in case freak conditions prevent his travelling to Ireland for the Lexus Chase today week. Only one of his two Henrietta Knight stablemates, last year's winner Edredon Bleu and Impek, will run, most likely the former.