Racing: Taaffe has faith that King can extend reign
Forty years after he won the King George VI Chase, the mythology of Arkle grows ever more elaborate. Inadequately sustained by flickering black-and-white footage, the legend continues to find more tangible, modern dimensions and a new biography was published this year.
In the meantime Best Mate, the horse insolent enough to measure Arkle's mortality by himself winning three Cheltenham Gold Cups, has been fatally punished, dropping dead on the racecourse.
And now Tom Taaffe, whose father rode Arkle, is bringing back a champion of his own - Kicking King, favourite to win a second King George on Boxing Day - to keep the bonds of memory secure.
Taaffe has a photograph that proves he once sat upon Arkle, though he says he did not know then whether he was astride a horse or a cow. His own achievements as a jockey were relatively modest, but his assured handling of Kicking King has proudly restored the family name to the heart of Ireland's steeplechasing heritage. Last winter Kicking King won both the King George and Gold Cup in despotic fashion. As it happens, Best Mate missed both races, but suddenly Arkle seemed safer from that comparison.
Kicking King also won at Punchestown in April, but his fortunes since have been instructive in the foundations of any great jumping career. From Arkle to Best Mate - or Moscow Flyer, come to that - style and calibre of performance is always underpinned by unglamorous miracles of soundness and consistency. Kicking King has lost both his starts this season, but his trainer has been so calm and convincing in his mitigation that the horse is as short as 5-4 to beat his eight rivals at Sandown.
First time out, in a small field at Punchestown, he was beaten three lengths by War Of Attrition and only held on to second in a photo. Taaffe remained sanguine. His stable was making a subdued start overall, and Kicking King had shown undiminished flair in his jumping. Barry Geraghty, sensing that the horse was so fresh that he might give himself a harder race than warranted by his fitness, rode him conservatively. All in all, it was perfectly excusable and Kicking King was confidently expected to resume business as usual at Haydock last month.
And for a long time it looked as though he would impose himself on as strong a field as he has encountered, moving lusciously into contention with two to jump. All of a sudden, however, he began to labour, and Geraghty was not hard on him as Kingscliff galloped dourly away, pursued instead by Beef Or Salmon. Once again, Taaffe resisted alarm: Kicking King had twisted a front shoe, and was palpably sore minutes after the race.
"If you're in racing and think you're going to win every day, then you're in the wrong game," Taaffe said yesterday. "You certainly won't last long thinking that way. It's part and parcel of the job. Anyone who knows racing would recognise that.
"We all know that he has not performed to the level expected of him, but I'm happy that he has valid excuses. In fact, if anything I'd say I am surprised how well he has run, considering the things that weren't right."
This time last year, some questioned whether Kicking King would stretch his energy as far as three miles, even round a sharp track like Kempton. Ironically, the transfer to a much stiffer track in Sandown - the race's usual home is closed for redevelopment - has, in the meantime, come to seem likely to play to his strengths.
"Last year everyone had seen that he could go some over two and a half miles on a downhill track," Taaffe recalled. "But having seen the style in which he ran three and a quarter miles round Cheltenham - and style is the word - they know he doesn't mind where we take him. Last season I did think he still needed to strengthen up a bit behind the saddle, and he's done that, in fact he's a stronger horse all over."
Taaffe also hopes that Kicking King may be better equipped than some for the famous sequence of staccato fences in the back straight at Sandown. His shocking blunder at the final fence at Kempton last year is attributed to inattention, having been in splendid isolation for so long. All in all, Taaffe appears full of conviction. It is not uncommon for Gold Cup winners to regress from an exhausting peak, but Kicking King will only turn eight on New Year's Day. "It's the same as with a human athlete," Taaffe said. "It all comes down to how they cope with everything that comes with being a star, with the media, with all the various virals, with the competition. It's a funny world. But I am very happy with our horse."
Which is more than can be said of Nicky Henderson. Trabolgan had already been ruled out of the King George by leg trouble and yesterday his trainer extinguished any lingering hope that he might be back in the spring.
"It is precautionary more than anything," Henderson said. "Luckily he is a young horse with half his career still ahead of him."
Sandown to inspect
With temperatures due to fall to below zero on Christmas Day night, there will be a precautionary inspection for frost at Sandown Park at 7.30am on Boxing Day.
Market Rasen, one of seven other meetings in Britain on Boxing Day, will also hold an inspection.
* Monday's edition of The Independent will contain cards and selections for all the Boxing Day meetings.
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