Racing: Walford's belief in Kingscliff unshaken

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The Independent Online

In their mutual rehabilitation, it is just as well that the horse is making bolder strides than his jockey managed here yesterday. For while Kingscliff had apparently showed all his customary ardour in the hunting field the previous day, and again when schooling over half a dozen fences in the morning, Robert Walford's own preparations for their reunion at Haydock tomorrow could hardly have been less auspicious.

He began with one of those anguished, slow-motion falls, where you can sometimes retrieve your saddle but never your dignity. Eventually gravity got the better of the argument, and Walford landed on the very collarbone he fractured just before Christmas. His only consolation was to illustrate the extent of his recovery - after just four previous rides during eight days since his comeback - by marching out for his next mount minutes later. Sadly Grandee Line made such a mess of the first ditch that Walford was obliged to pull him up, and the fence itself was dolled off for the rest of the afternoon.

The jockey then scurried away for another session of physiotherapy, but not before confirming the even temperament that has helped earn him the ride on Kingscliff this season. He shrugged off any exasperation in much the same way as he had the schooling accident that ruled him out of the King George VI Chase on Boxing Day. In the event, Kingscliff ran dreadfully at Sandown, tailing off after a mistake with a circuit to go. Even so, he remains one of the favourites for the Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup, and as the rider of only 65 winners in five seasons since winning the Kim Muir Chase on Honey Mount, Walford is showing a commendable head for heights.

"Of course I realise it's a chance in a lifetime," he said. "I was only 18 when I rode Honey Mount, and in a way I didn't know it had happened. I didn't realise what a big deal it was to have a winner at the Festival. Obviously I do now.

"There are very few horses around as good as Kingscliff, and it's fantastic for someone like me to have a chance like this. You'd be worried if you didn't feel the pressure a bit, but basically I'm pretty laid-back."

That mental readiness is nearly matched by his flesh, though he is still having treatment on sore back muscles. "It was very slow to heal but I gave it all the time it needed," he said. "Over the past few days I have finally been able to take off a shirt without it hurting."

Despite his long history of problems that appears to have infected the confidence of the betting market, Kingscliff seems free of any physical inhibition. "He's full of it," Walford promised. "We were out with the hunt for an hour or two and, while he was pretty much wrapped in cotton wool, he absolutely loved it. It's not that he would otherwise go stale, but it just fires him up. And I was really pleased with the way he jumped this morning."

Walford intends to ride Kingscliff much the same as when they beat Beef Or Salmon and Kicking King - both of whom amplified the form over Christmas - on their last visit to Haydock in November.

"Unless they go flat out, I expect I'll be pretty positive again," he said. "We know he likes the course, and the ground will be soft again. The one difference is that it's a handicap this time, and it will be hard work giving a horse like Lord Transcend 19lb."

Though Walford's talents are certainly valued by the trainer of Kingscliff, Robert Alner, he owes this opportunity to the owner. Arnie Sendell is a man who knows his own mind. "I don't like it when jockeys treat me like an idiot," he said yesterday. "I'm only half an idiot!"

Sendell suspects that Kingscliff may simply have frightened himself by his blunder at Sandown. The equine phyisotherapist, Mary Bromiley, did find some muscular pain in the horse's neck a few days later, however, and Sendell intimated that Kingscliff might yet improve on whatever he does tomorrow. "He looks very well, but if I were being picky I would say he might have a bit more of a top line than at Sandown," he said.

It was only minutes later that Siberian Highness showed how quickly a racehorse can erase disappointment. This mare appalled Alan King when turned over at Folkestone last month, but she showed her true colours here. "I'm so relieved," the trainer said. "Her work before she won at Warwick first time was unbelievable. She hasn't taken the breath away in quite the same way since, but maybe she is just becoming more relaxed. I would hope she's good enough for Cheltenham."

William Hill duly offered 25-1 for the AIB Supreme Novices' Hurdle, and the easy winner of the other division, Princelet, at 33-1 for the JCB Triumph Hurdle. His trainer, Nicky Henderson, has a strong hand in that race even before Dafarabad, already subject of much gossip, makes his debut over hurdles next week.

A first success over fences for Tamarinbleu at Ludlow, meanwhile, earned him a quote of 12-1 for Cheltenham's Irish Independent Arkle Chase.

Chris McGrath

Nap: Kirkstone

(Wolverhampton 4.55)

NB: Wahoo Sam

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