A week to go, and the fighting talk has started. Some trainers prefer to let their horses speak for them, others are quite happy to put words in their mouths. Yesterday Tom Taaffe declared on behalf of his charge Kicking King, who will be defending his status as the best staying chaser in these isles in the King George VI Chase on Boxing Day.
Kicking King will be aiming to take the great midwinter prize for the second time, and is currently favourite so to do, but goes to the fray with much to prove, for after his triumphant progress through last season - his victories included the Cheltenham Gold Cup - he has been beaten in both his outings this term.
But Taaffe believes that the King George's new, temporary, home will play to the eight-year-old's strengths. The three-mile contest has been transferred to Sandown from Kempton, its home since the first running in 1937, because of redevelopment at the Sunbury track. And the two courses could not present a greater contrast.
Being right-handed is all they have in common. Kempton is flat, sharp, lightning-fast, with 19 obstacles to be taken at the flood, including three to be winged in the home straight before a run-in from the last of only 175 yards. Sandown is undulating with a premium on agility and stamina; the first of the 22 leaps required is downhill, the last three fences in the back straight have only a dozen strides between each, and from the final turn the course is against the collar with a gut-testing 300-yard climb to the winning post.
Ironically, Kicking King's monumental, and rather uncharacteristic, blunder at the last at Kempton 12 months ago may have come because he was winning too easily. "Jumping is one of his biggest assets," said Taaffe, "he loves it, and there's a lot of it at Sandown. I don't envisage any problems."
Most recently, Kicking King failed at Haydock last month behind his great rival Kingscliff, who had chased him home in last year's King George. Afterwards, it was discovered that he had twisted a shoe in running, which not only caused him discomfort, but acted rather like a kedge anchor in the mud.
Taaffe believes that the gelding is back to his perky best. "He's very good now," he said. "He worked very, very well the other day and more importantly he's happy and well in himself. Once he's that way, I am too.
"At the time at Haydock, it seemed that he'd run very flat, and I couldn't put my finger on it. But five minutes later we were able to see why. I respect all of them in the King George, but if my own fellow is as well as I think he is, then I am very happy indeed."
At Kempton, the King George is something of a specialist's race; 10 individual dual or multiple winners have taken 23 of the 55 runnings. Despite the change of arena, Kicking King is generally a 7-4 chance to become the 11th.
Monday's edition of the showpiece will be the decider between Kicking King and Kingscliff, 10 and a half lengths to the good at Haydock and two and a half behind at Kempton, but neither the Irish champion nor Britain's best has yet experienced Sandown's unique demands.
But Kingscliff's trainer Robert Alner is another bullish about both the new test and his charge's well-being. "Sandown will suit him well," he said. "He jumps very well, he always has, and is very light on his feet for a big horse.
"He's balanced, and he travels at whatever speed you want, a very straightforward ride, which can only be a help round a tricky course. At the moment he's as well as he has ever been, 100 per cent with no hiccups whatsoever."
The trainer with the best recent record in the Grade 1 contest is François Doumen, who has won it five times with four horses. His candidate this time, L'Ami, who chased home Trabolgan in the Hennessy Gold Cup on his most recent run, is vying for third favouritism behind the big two.
The France-based gelding is only six, but then so were his two erstwhile stablemates The Fellow and Algan when they won. "He will have to improve to beat the big boys," said Doumen, "but they have probably reached their level, so with mine being younger, maybe he can. And he has never been better than now."
Nap: Shining Strand (Doncaster 2.30)
NB: Chilling Place
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