Racing: The 'big bugger' that could be a big winner

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Arnold Sendell remembers vividly the moment his life with horses changed. The scene is a farm near Athenry, Co Galway; his good friend Martin Cullinane, a noted horsetrader, shows him an unbroken three-year-old by Toulon. A crack of the Long Tom sends the raw-boned, unfurnished brute scampering round the little sand arena. Cullinane names his price; Sendell watches the massive gelding show his paces, but says little, apparently unmoved, and goes home to Somerset.

He still recalls the impression the youngster made. "As soon as I saw that big horse I thought, 'Christ, if I can do a deal over him I will'," he said. "He was 16.3 hands then, and he'd been just pulled out of the field. But he went round that sandpit as handy as a 14.2 pony, I'd never seen anything like it. My old mentor, Tim Handel, used to say 'if you buy a big bugger don't buy a bloody old carthorse, make sure you buy one that can handle himself'. And this one could.

"I left it four days and then rang Martin back and said I'd have him, but he'd have to come down a bit. We did the deal and I can tell you that I gave peanuts for him, bugger all. And Martin said, to his credit, that he'd be the best horse I'd ever had off him, and that he was telling me then, when he was three, that he would be a star, not after he'd done it." Both men were spot-on in their judgement, for the horse turned out to be Kingscliff, the favourite for Friday's Cheltenham Gold Cup.

Sendell, 72, a retired electrical engineer from North Petherton, has been involved with racing, primarily through point-to-pointing, for some 30 years, ever since he gave up playing rugby. "I like to do my own thing and make my own decisions," he said, "even if they turn out to be wrong. But whatever you do you've got to have people on your side who will help, I learned that in my business. And the man who taught me most was Tim Handel, a hell of a judge."

Handel, who died five years ago, combined training under permit with a butcher's business. His best horse, Royal Toss, won a Whitbread and split Glencaraig Lady and The Dikler in the blanket finish to the 1972 Gold Cup.

"I'd go off and buy one, and bring him back for him to look at, and he'd tell me what I'd done right or wrong, and that was the way I learnt," said Sendell. "One thing he used to say was, 'Make sure there's plenty of expensive meat in the arse of them, because that's where the power comes from'. And how right he was."

Once broken, the young Kingscliff was sent, not straight to his present trainer, Robert Alner, but to a sport- horse yard. "I know that balance is imperative in an athlete," said Sendell. "You look at a good rugby centre and you see as he sidesteps how balanced and agile he has to be.

"I'm not sure the idea of breaking horses and then turning them away for a year is right. I wanted this one to have that dressage training to get and keep his muscles toned, and when he went to the Alners, Robert said he'd never had a horse that size so well balanced."

The eight-year-old's career has been blighted by injury, and his commendable runner-up spot behind Kicking King in the King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day on his seasonal debut was only his sixth race under rules. That he has taken the Gold Cup favourite's mantle in Best Mate's enforced absence is ironic, for he himself missed the Cheltenham showpiece at the eleventh hour last year.

"I do feel for Best Mate's people," said Sendell. "And I think whoever wins would have liked the defending champion to have been there."

Kingscliff, who has grown to stand nearly 18 hands, is now more powerful than ever. "When I had him home during the summer he started doing the Black Beauty stuff, galloping about, standing up on his hind legs, and he was awesome," said Sendell. "And Robert's wife, Sally, who always rides him at home, says she's beginning to feel like an insig-nificant pimple on his back. He's started to realise that he is a big, very strong racehorse."

Two years ago Sendell, who has turned down some serious offers, landed a proper long-term punt, £100 at 100-1, when his pride and joy won the Cheltenham Foxhunters'. "In a way, as a pointing man, that was my Gold Cup," he said. "All my friends were there, we'd come up from Somerset in a coach, like we'd always done and like we'll do this week too.

"We'll have a good day; we always do, but I'm not getting carried away. It's just a horse race, so much can go wrong, and that's how you end up with the biggest blob of egg on your face."