Racing: Legends ride to the rescue of Gold Cup's divine spirit

'Will Kicking King gallop to glory in the Gold Cup? Will he get the great race out of trouble?'

Only a stranger to the wild and mysterious culture of Cheltenham might have considered them extreme measures, but it did happen that when Father Sean Breen celebrated mass for 200 rather heavy-headed compatriots yesterday he had two well-filled glasses of red wine on the altar.

Father Breen, a parish priest in a village nestling between the Curragh and Punchestown, had launched his latest mission with a blessing for today's Gold Cup co-favourite Kicking King back in Ireland at the weekend.

During the bidding prayers at the mass in a conference room at the Thistle hotel near the GCHQ spy centre, the horse chaplain also made one or two changes to the liturgy. At one point he said, with due solemnity: "We pray for winners, because they are so hard to get. We pray for Irish winners, no matter what part of the country they come from.

"Irish horses are the best in the world, although the French are quite good too."

Even more contentiously, Fr Breen suggested that the "books" (bookmakers) were also in need of some spiritual sustenance after the slaughter inflicted on them by Moscow Flyer in Wednesday's Champion Chase.

You might just say that the greatest race in all of steeplechasing is also in need of a little help from celestial headquarters today. This week's death of the Gold Cup contender Farmer Jack, a 10-1 shot, after the scratching of the great champion Best Mate and his successor as favourite, Kingscliff, has brought some heavy doubts about the enduring appeal of the race that is supposed to define all that is best in National Hunt racing.

These are fears, however, that do not carry too much weight among the aficionados. "The Gold Cup is the perfect test of a chaser," said one yesterday, "and you know that there is always someone around who is going to lift everything up."

Mike Dillon, the chief oddsmaker of Ladbrokes, is emphatic. "Best Mate is a loss, no doubt, but it doesn't touch the status of the race. You might say that when he went out the other day the race was still making its claim on him. He won it three times, which was remarkable, but last time he had to fight his way all the way to the line. Kicking King, Beef Or Salmon, Celestial Gold, who knows who will be the new star? But you'd better bet that come this afternoon there will be a new one."

Certainly, the already anointed Kicking King would step into the vacant role quite beautifully. A triumph from him would have all the ingredients that make for an Irish racing epic: a crisis; a redemption; a whiff of mischief when odds of 999-1 were posted after he was briefly a non-runner at the start of the month; but most of all a leaping act of faith by his trainer, Tom Taaffe, who after noting a "dirty scope" saw signs of dramatic recovery in subsequent work-outs, and threw him back into the field.

Taaffe, now there's a name to return a little lustre to the race which has been so beset by casualties. Taaffe, son of Pat, the rider of the legendary Arkle, is guaranteed to provide a ruminative trip around the Irish racing psyche if he indeed steps into the winners' enclosure today.

In these circumstances Kicking King, like his compatriot and co-favourite Beef Or Salmon, would surely send Irish thunder rolling around the valley. But would it match the din that accompanied Moscow Flyer's reception on Wednesday? Some practised observers, including Fr Breen, who claims to have arrived in Cheltenham for the first time the year Arkle, the greatest horse to come here, won the first of his three Gold Cups in 1964, are sceptical. Said Dillon yesterday: "I never heard a noise like that in the valley - it was so sustained, so passionate, you knew you were living through one of the great moments in Cheltenham.

"Everybody says the run of Dawn Run touched the soul of this place most deeply in 1986, but anyone here this week had to know that the emotions created by Moscow Flyer were quite similar. This is a place where the courage and the brilliance of the horses always seem to emerge."

In one of his more famous blessings, to a horse that threatened one of the great equine recoveries after delicate surgery, Father Breen intoned: "God bless Danoli, who got us out of trouble."

Will Kicking King gallop to glory with both jockey Barry Geraghty and the mystique of the Gold Cup riding on his back? Will he get the great race out of trouble? It is a viable possibility, and certainly enough so to bring again a fine edge of excitement.

One night some years ago a group of Irish race followers, who on St Patrick's Day the next morning would attend mass fortified by a combination of penance and Alka-Seltzer, enacted an elaborate ritual. One of them stood on a stool in the hotel and gave a word-perfect reproduction of Mícheál O'Hehir's commentary when Dawn Run, apparently beaten at the last, battled up the rising ground to beat Wayward Lad.

The mimic's voice rose and fell and in the room there were great roars; hats were thrown in the air, as they were when Jonjo O'Neill willed the mare forward to glory that would never die. There was the power of the Gold Cup, a race run on a perfect course and at the optimum distance, three miles two furlongs. Today we will feel that power again. Father Breen, after all, has it on the best authority. Each year it is written in the heavens.

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