Racing: Taaffe ready for high Kicking aim

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The Independent Online

It was probably a champion we saw down in the blasted low paddock of the Portree Stables just outside Straffan in Co Kildare yesterday. Kicking King got down slowly and rolled on his back, a posture which his rivals in the John Durkan Chase at Punchestown the previous day must have felt like adopting.

It was probably a champion we saw down in the blasted low paddock of the Portree Stables just outside Straffan in Co Kildare yesterday. Kicking King got down slowly and rolled on his back, a posture which his rivals in the John Durkan Chase at Punchestown the previous day must have felt like adopting.

Now it is not ridiculous to mention his name in conjunction with the finest races. The King George VI Chase at Kempton is next and the Cheltenham Gold Cup shimmers on the horizon.

These are contests to which Tom Taaffe, Kicking King's trainer, was born. The surname has been an ivy around success for decades in Ireland. There is a museum in Taaffe's swish new home, clippings and souvenirs of perhaps the greatest eras of Irish racing. There are memories of leviathans past, the flying Captain Christy and the ultimate yardstick in this game, Arkle himself, the first trained by Tom Taaffe's legendary father, Pat, the second ridden by him.

Daddy, as Tom Taaffe refers to him, passed away in July 1992, but one of his final acts was to survey the sweep of Irish sod that his son was to turn into a training centre. Taaffe junior has been impaled on the comparison with his father too may times, both as jockey and trainer, which has led to a natural reservation about his horses. Now, though, there is a sense that finally another winged one has come, a horse to stand comparison with others in the family album.

It was a beguiling thought yesterday from the high vantage point of a yard where keen eyes could locate the Hill Of Allen, the K Club, the next venue for the Ryder Cup, and a private graveyard for the Guinness family.

A hot toddy with extravagant use of Irish whiskey was served dead on nine, to the accompaniment of home-made brown bread, still warm from the oven. Pâté or in-house strawberry jam were the spreads. Dick Hern never used to take this trouble.

Tom Taaffe has nurtured the expectancy which now envelops his stables from the moment his eyes met the yearling Kicking King at Fairyhouse sales. "He's a particularly good-looking horse and that day I wasn't going home without him," the trainer said. "He had everything you'd look for in a young horse. He had size, substance and depth. He was this great athletic walker and there was charisma. Most importantly, there was this great presence about his head. All the real good horses have that."

Taaffe has known the experience all his life. The first horse he ever sat on as a two-year-old (him not the horse), was Arkle. "I didn't even know if he was a horse or a cow,'' he said.

Now that the Kicking King team have identified the attacking tendency which best suits the six-year-old, whimsical comparisons with the great horse can be idly allowed.

Taaffe blames himself for the Down Royal defeat by Beef Or Salmon. "We tried to settle him, but you can't be pulling a horse back on the flat after he's made two or three lengths at every fence," he said. "Yesterday the plan was to rock and roll and not allow Beef Or Salmon to show-jump his way round. Our horse was very stylish. You'd have to love the way he was jumping, almost hurdling his fences."

The jumping also occurs in Taaffe's mind, first to Kempton, where he has never had a runner, and on to the greater distance, the greater test of the Blue Riband. "I hope and believe we will not see the best of Kicking King until he is eight or nine, but if it was genuine good ground I would love to run him in the Gold Cup this season," he said. "I have no doubt he can do it. Whether it's '05 or '06 is the question."

Fifteen-miles south but still in the county of Kildare, there was another horse of quality getting back to nature yesterday. Moscow Flyer was getting down and personal in the mud in a paddock at Jessica Harrington's premises in Moone.

The trainer remains ambivalent about Kempton and a first foray at the three miles of the King George while the alternative of the Leopardstown race Moscow Flyer won 12 months ago exists. Certainly, the horse's wrecking-ball performance in the Tingle Creek Chase on Saturday proved the instant electricity was still there even as his 11th birthday approaches.

"Barry [Geraghty, the jockey] feels he is as good as ever and that he might even be better," Harrington said. "He has not had a lot of hardship. Saturday was probably his best performance, probably the best quality field he has taken on and probably the first time he has had to battle over fences. He has always won rather snugly."

Moscow Flyer was back in somnolent mood yesterday, the one he carries everywhere but the track. "He is the quietest horse around but he is a great character at the same time," Harrington said. "He likes to go out into his paddock, where he walks, rolls and watches the traffic. At the track he's different. As soon as I get him into the saddling boxes, he tries to kill me or squeeze me against a wall. I suppose he gets an adrenaline surge and gets himself keyed up." It is the same for all of us who get to see the fast horse at work.

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