Anticlimax was the name in the form book yesterday for the faithful who turned out in the autumn sunshine at Punchestown. They came to see the monarch of all Ireland, Kicking King, continue his regal progress and instead witnessed a dethroning. The post-race consensus was that it is a temporary one, but the fact remains that last season's King George VI Chase and Cheltenham Gold Cup winner started his new campaign by being beaten three lengths, and a decisive three lengths at that, by War Of Attrition.
Afterwards, there was pragmatism, not shirt-rending, from Kicking King's connections and time may show that it was a thoroughly respectable performance against a horse who was, after all, one of last season's best novices and may have had the edge in sharpness, having had a racecourse gallop as part of his preparation. "I was delighted with ours," insisted the King's trainer, Tom Taaffe. "He came here very fresh, had a good school round and I was thrilled with the way he jumped. He had not had a day away, whereas the other horse had."
Kicking King's jumping was certainly impressive. He was keen to get on with things throughout the race, running strongly into Barry Geraghty's hands and as the two and three-quarter mile contest warmed up on the final circuit he gained lengths in the air at every fence as he and Pizarro diced in the lead. But Geraghty never really took the initiative and by the turn for home Kicking King was running out of puff, and a lowish jump at the penultimate obstacle made the birch fly.
War Of Attrition, by contrast, had conserved his energy under stalking tactics from Conor O'Dwyer and came with a wet sail over the last two fences. Kicking King, the 30-100 favourite, had no answer as the 7-1 winner powered past and away and did well to hold a rallying Pizarro by a short-head for the runner-up spot.
Bookmaker reaction was muted; Coral eased Kicking King a smidgen from 2-1 to 9-4 as Gold Cup favourite, and William Hill remained unmoved at 2-1. War Of Attrition has been cut to 10-1 for the Festival feature, but his target is more likely to be the two-and-a-half mile championship race sponsored by his owner, Ryanair boss Michael O'Leary.
Kicking King remains on track for the Betfair Chase at Haydock next month, the new race that forms the first leg of the three that offer a £1m bonus. "I don't want to take anything away from the winner today," added Taaffe, "but I'd rather get beaten here than at Haydock, Sandown or Cheltenham. It would have been nice to have won, but I'm more than happy with him."
War Of Attrition will not take his victim on at Haydock. "He doesn't have the experience for that yet," said his trainer, Mouse Morris. "I thought he looked burly enough today, so there will be more. He may go to Down Royal next month."
Meanwhile, the team behind the horse whose crown Kicking King inherited at Cheltenham, are relishing the easing of pressure as they plot their own hero's return. Best Mate is right on course for the Haldon Gold Cup at Exeter on Tuesday week, his first run since he suffered his own shock defeat, behind Beef Or Salmon at Leopardstown last December. His season was restricted to just two runs after he was a late withdrawal from the Gold Cup after suffering a minor pulmonary haemorrhage.
"All eyes are on Kicking King and not so much on Matey so it is a bit easier," said the 10-year-old's trainer, Henrietta Knight, yesterday. "But he shouldn't be the forgotten horse. He's in great shape, he has low mileage and seems sprightly. And horses have won the Gold Cup when they're 12 so there's no reason why he shouldn't keep going for two more."
A familiar programme has been mapped out for another perennial favourite, Baracouda. The top-class French-trained staying hurdler, winner of two Cheltenham titles and runner-up in two others, is to make his return in the Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury's Hennessy Gold Cup meeting next month, followed by Windsor's Long Walk Hurdle in December.
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