It's a tough enough call on Christmas Day. To sit, turkey-stuffed in the bosom of the family, in front of The Railway Children, Casablanca, Toy Story 2 and the Top of the Pops festive special, dreaming of the delights to come on the racecourse the following day? Or to be at Sandown as part of the back room force that keeps the show on the road?
For Shane Moloney, who will escort King George VI Chase favourite Kicking King from Straffan, in Co Kildare, to Esher, it's a no-brainer. "With horses, you accept that most days are working days," he said yesterday, "and I'd rather be working with this horse than doing anything, even on Christmas Day. And I'm used to it anyway, I've spent 19 of the last 20 Christmases on duty."
Moloney, Tom Taaffe's travelling head man, will set off on Friday with his precious charge for the 12-hour journey by road and the Dublin to Holyhead ferry. It's a trek the pair are used to, for Kicking King is a regular visitor to these shores, having run at Cheltenham twice, in last year's King George at Kempton, and at Haydock last month.
And at Sandown, it will be business as usual. "He doesn't worry about the travelling or being away," said Moloney, "just relaxes and gets on with it. I'll ride him out on Christmas Eve on the racecourse, and on Christmas morning." Moloney, 39, has been with Taaffe at Portree Stables for four years now and was so confident about Kicking King's chances before the Gold Cup in March that he threatened to give up racing if the horse lost. It's a life he has enjoyed professionally for some 14 years in assorted climes, having had stints with Bryan Smart, Pip Payne and Sylvester Kirk.
The Sandown executive will be ensuring as many home comforts as possible for the long-distance travellers at the weekend, including a full turkey 'n' trimmings Christmas dinner. "They gave us a fantastic time at Kempton last year," said Moloney, a single man.
"There were about 30 of us, from Ireland, France and some of the northern yards. When you're on the road you get to know the others in the business; it's like being part of a family. We hear that Sandown are going to do the same for us as Kempton, so there should be plenty of craic." Moloney, who has looked after Kicking King at home since his novice days, reports the eight-year-old in splendid fettle. "He's in grand form," he added, "but the important thing is that he comes back safe. The only result that counts is still having your horse afterwards and the next day."
Sandown's seasonal largesse will extend to Boxing Day. Though it may seem unjust, at most courses stable staff are charged for food, but goodwill has kicked in and the workers will eat for free on the big day as well. And clerk of the course Andrew Cooper, indicated yesterday that the gesture may become permanent. "It's a bit of an anomaly," he admitted, " that the only part of the industry we don't feed are the ones who are probably paid least."
The ground at Sandown, so testing at the start of the month, has dried considerably and the chase course yesterday was riding good, good to soft in places. "We had only a third of an inch of rain since the last meeting," said Cooper. "It would ease quickly if rain arrived, but there is nothing at the moment to indicate it will."
Another name was thrown into the King George hat yesterday when the Nicky Henderson-trained Irish Hussar, stablemate of injured Trabolgan, was handed the Seven Barrows number 12 shirt.
The nine-year-old has not raced since finishing third at this year's Cheltenham Festival, but clearly can go well fresh, as that creditable run was his first since pulling up in the 2004 Gold Cup. But he is rated a 40-1 outsider for Monday's Grade One contest. Henderson's retained rider, Mick Fitzgerald, had been named at a possible partner for François Doumen's L'Ami, but the Frenchman may yet have to cherchez le jock. "If Irish Hussar runs, I will be on him," said Fitzgerald. The penultimate declarations for the Christmas showpiece will be made today.
* Trainer Evan Williams was fined £7,500 at a Jockey Club inquiry yesterday. Williams faced the disciplinary panel after owner Paul Cooper claimed the trainer had destroyed his horse, Indibar, against his wishes.
* Chepstow will stage the Long Walk Hurdle, lost when Windsor was abandoned on Saturday, on 27 December.
Nap: Mercato (Fontwell 2.30)
NB: Irish Grouse