Racing: Kingscliff the most natural of equine heroes
King George VI Chase: Country life brings out best in a giant talent reared in the true Dorset way
If such a reminder was needed, a morning spent at Locketts Farm in deepest Dorset is a salutary one about the ties that bind jump racing to the countryside. To watch Kings-cliff, the best staying chaser trained in England and second favourite for the King George VI Chase, and his trainer Robert Alner so at peace with each other and their surroundings was a delight.
Ecclesiastes, the preacher, had it right: for everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven. Right now, the focus is the Boxing Day showpiece at Sandown and for once the build-up has gone smoothly. With the horse, that is; his unlucky rider Robbie Walford is nursing a cracked collarbone and hoping he will be fit for his first chance on a glamour stage. The unheralded 25-year-old, plucked from relative obscurity by Kingscliff's owner Arnie Sendell earlier this season, hurt himself in a fall on Thursday. While sympathetic to the young man's plight, Alner's reaction was pragmatic. "I can get another jockey," he said, "but I couldn't get another horse."
It was said not callously, but with feeling born from experience. Injury-prone Kingscliff, who in the past has fractured bones in a leg and a foot and torn muscles, has missed the last two Cheltenham Gold Cups because of 11th-hour mishaps.
With Walford heading for hospital, Alner, 62, took over for morning exercise. The scene was bucolic; the trainer rode long in rubber boots, jeans and a pair of pink, but practical, gloves; his wife Sally tried to control a pair of exuberant Lakeland terriers. The midwinter is not yet bleak, but the backdrop came from a cold palette: the black tracery of leafless trees against grey-green hills caught by thin sunlight; damp grass underfoot and cloying mud in gateways. The sparkle came from Kingscliff.
The eight-year-old has put his physical vicissitudes behind him and has ripened into a magnificent specimen, every inch of 17.2 hands - that's nearly six feet at the top of his shoulder - with width and depth to match. "He has," said Alner, "finally grown into his enormous frame. I am sure when he was younger his problems came because he was weak and his bones were immature. He was always tall, but he was narrow, too narrow for a horse his size.
"But now he has strength and muscle tone. This year, for the first time, we've had him here since he came in from his summer holiday instead of him being prepped elsewhere, and that has helped us do the work we've wanted with him. And we've had a clear run, no hiccups at all."
If Kingscliff's physique is impressive, his temperament is perhaps more so. This is a 620kg equine athlete, full of corn and fit to run for his life, yet - off the training gallop, at least - he behaves like a child's pony. His arrival for his workout was low-key; he took the scenic route through the fields on a loose rein, as if he were out for a Sunday morning stroll. And after his spin, the amiable gelding's first thought was to get his head down for a snack, happy to stand in the sunshine and do not much.
In action, too, he was laid-back, but the latent authority was undeniable. He led the string on three rhythmic laps of the six-furlong wood-chip alongside Sir Rembrandt, already placed in two Gold Cups, and dwarfed him in every way. As the two bay backsides powered away, Kingscliff's was obvious in being a size bigger and broader. Our hero ate ground in relaxed mode; Sir Rembrandt gave stable jockey Andy Thornton a hard time, tugging and arching keenly.
"He is extraordinary," said Alner of his mount. "One day, he was out for a hack round the village and Sally stopped to gossip. A cat jumped off a wall on to his back, sat and cleaned its paws, and jumped off, and he didn't bat an eyelid. He will always do what he's asked, but he's just as happy not to work, whereas Rembrandt is up for it all the time."
In another era, Kingscliff, with his bold, liquid eye and surefooted, balanced athleticism, would have found a permanent niche as a gentleman's quality hunter. Today, it's a role he takes on occasionally as part of his training regime, but entirely naturally, given his home. The clues are in the landscape; the hedges crisscrossing Alner's land (he is the third generation of his family on the farm, and was born where the horsewalker stands on the site of the now demolished farmhouse) are punctuated by timber hunt jumps; oxers, tiger traps and posts-and-rails.
Kingscliff and his master will be out with hounds on Wednesday, when the Portman meet at the yard. "Some horses thrive on routine," said Alner, "but here, we do something different every day. And out hunting, a lazy horse like Kingscliff works hard without knowing it. It is ideal."
Alner's methods, so close to his roots, have already won one Gold Cup, in 1998 with Cool Dawn, who, like Kingscliff, started life as a point-to-pointer. There is still no glamour at Locketts Farm but there may soon be glitz, for should Kingscliff prevail on Boxing Day, he will be one race - the Gold Cup - away from a £1m bonus, jump racing's biggest-ever prize.
"It would be nice," he said, "but three top races at different courses over five months is a big ask. But he feels great and I'm confident he's 100 per cent for this one. I suppose you could say I'm mildly excited."
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