Racing: Legend's spirit alive in daunting presence and deft technique
Everybody knows that Arkle the legend will never be beaten but here yesterday a flesh-and-blood horse called Kicking King won the greatest steeplechase of them all in a way that made more than a little magic of his own.
He won quite beautifully a Gold Cup that was supposed to be stripped of the highest class after the withdrawals of the three-times champion, Best Mate, and the second favourite Kingscliff. This, though, according to one of the most formidable judges of horseflesh that racing has ever known, was the least of the achievement of the seven-year-old new pride of Ireland.
As the electricity generated by perfect performances from Kicking King and his exultant jockey, Barry Geraghty, ran through the Gloucestershire valley, the suggestion was that something more than a golden spring day had been seized. It came from Charlie Swan, who made extraordinary history of his own here with three Champion Hurdle wins on the back of the beloved Istabraq, who said that Kicking King could well have besieged the future as well as a little of the past once owned so exclusively by the fabled Arkle.
After congratulating trainer Tom Taaffe, son of Arkle's three-times winning rider Pat, Swan said: "This was a great performance and, yes, I have to say this is the horse that could go beyond Arkle's three wins. Best Mate drew level, and it is sad that he couldn't race today, but you just couldn't say enough about Kicking King's performance today. As a seven-year-old he obviously could come back and win three more times. That's a lot to say, but then he has a good trainer in Tom Taaffe and looking at him today he seemed to have all the ability in the world.
"Everything was so perfect in the performance - he was running keen most the time. This was a horse totally in control of everything around him."
Here again we saw the folly of downgrading the blue riband of steeplechasing, the race which investigates the last fibre of a champion's will and, just when it is supposed to be in terminal decline, throws up a star like Kicking King - a handsome flier who made nonsense of talk that he might not stay the most demanding three miles, two furlongs and 110 yards in all of racing.
Not only did he stay, he did it so imperiously there was never any question that he would do anything but conquer.
Three fences from home the victory had become a formality. He jumped it with a conviction, and then a quickening pace, which banished all challenge. No, maybe he wasn't as pulverising as Arkle, maybe down the years the kind of power and consistency that tore up the handicaps will remain some way beyond the range of the new champion. Arkle, after all, was a phenomenon of the ages. What the evidence says about Kicking King is that he is a marvellous athlete of thrilling potential, a horse of daunting presence and deeply impressive technique.
The same has to be said of him as it was of Best Mate. You can only be the best of your day, and there was no doubt here last night that Kicking King had established that credential. The passing of the crown was for the trainers, Taaffe and Best Mate's Henrietta Knight, a moment of great joy and poignancy. When Knight saw Taaffe walking from the winner's enclosure she rushed to him and they embraced for quite some time.
It was rather more than the polite exchange of congratulations and thanks. It was a close-up of the emotion and pain that comes when you guide a horse through the perils of a year, when you bring him to a moment of supreme achievement. "That was incredible, Tom," said Henrietta. "It was a wonderful achievement - a great thing to see."
Henrietta's husband, the gnarled old former champion jockey Terry Biddlecombe, was less delicate. He burst into a victory conference where Taaffe was promising a winning party that would stretch into something nearly as epic as his horse's performance, and yelled, 'Taaffe, well done'."
Well done, indeed. Well done for the brilliant renewal of racing legend, of high achievement and careful stewardship of the highest talent. Taaffe endlessly told the story of how when the four-year-old Kicking King won a bumper at Leopardstown, his son was being born without his attendance. They called the boy Pat, reported Tom to a stream of interrogators, and then he said that all they needed now was to find the new Arkle.
Kicking King may not be the new Arkle - that item may forever be locked in the strongroom of racing - but when he so beautifully responded to the promptings of his jockey he was more than a passable substitute. He had become a new name, a quick, fine talent and some racing insiders were saying that if their sport was boxing there would be instant pressure for a dream race at Kempton Park next Boxing Day, a King George Vl battle between Best Mate, the supplanted champion, Moscow Flyer, the heart-throb of Cheltenham this week, and the contender who here swept so spectacularly to the title.
It probably won't happen, but there is intrigue and excited speculation about the next few years in the life of Kicking King. He won more than the blue riband of chasing. He brought the great festival of Cheltenham back to triumphant life on what will always be its most important day.
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