Gifford sees Star in the ascendant

RACING: Last year's King George runner-up may be about to tamper with a Christmas tradition and sweep the old order aside . . .
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Yuletide is all about continuity; about receiving pairs of slippers you never wear, about sleeping through the Bond movie and about the same horses winning the King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day.

The Dickinson family used to treat the race as some sort of post-prandial game, passing it among themselves for six years at the beginning of the 1980s. Wayward Lad, their main contributor, Desert Orchid and The Fellow have accounted for nine of the last12 King Georges between them.

This is not to say the unusually mellow crowd (everyone has been nice to them for a few days and the bookies have not been open) has had to endure dull or predictable racing. The rise and end of Desert Orchid could be charted at Sunbury, there was the shock of Nupsala's victory and the recent hegemony of his stablemate, The Fellow.

And then 12 months ago there was one of the more stirring encounters of the season, when Adrian Maguire bounced up and down in Barton Bank's saddle, like an errant child trampolining on its bed, to repel Declan Murphy on Bradbury Star. The protracted struggle from the last led to both jockeys receiving suspensions for use of the whip, a decision which made the laws look long-eared and designed to pull a cart. Murphy had his ban rescinded, but went on to win a far greater battle.

The Irishman's head injuries following a fall in May were so great that he had difficulty remembering his own name, never mind the nuances of the King George. His place on Bradbury Star, the favourite, is now taken by Philip Hide, who helped the horse toa second consecutive win in the Mackeson Gold Cup last month.

Hide's career may be in its infancy, but Josh Gifford, Bradbury Star's trainer, has no fear that his young man will have a fitful holiday period, no fear that the rider will be sharing the midnight mince pies and sherry with Santa. "He won't be losing any sleep, it will be me who will be doing that," Gifford said yesterday. "Nothing worries Philip."

Bradbury Star is a horse who invariably travels better in a race than his rivals, a superiority he first enjoyed as a young horse running free with cattle for two years. Gifford considers his entrant to now be an improved animal from the one beaten a head 12 months ago. "I can't wait for the race," he said. "I think the horse is better than he was this time last year and I hope they go a bloody good gallop."

Gifford's is not a rare belief. In a race which contains the first four from last year, plus the faller Travado, self doubt is about as available as rooms at the inn. "He's as good as he was last year and might even be a little bit better," was David Nicholson's bulletin on Barton Bank. "He is a very good horse and people seem to forget he's never been beaten over fences when he's completed."

That is a touch misleading as Barton Bank was well beaten when he fell (for the second time in the race) on his head and on his reappearance at Wetherby. It was only recently the gelding began to look other than like a man who has earned a Lonsdale Belt in the course of his trade.

In addition, the eight-year-old's log book shows that he burst a blood vessel in the build-up to the Festival last year. But as the Duke addressed his morning grapefruit at Jackdaws Castle this week, he was not also about to address the physical problemsof Barton Bank. "I don't even think about that," he said. "He's in great form. He hardly takes any work and he's fine."

The trainer will be single-handed in the race as Dubacilla has been re-routed to Sandown for 7 January. Maguire, who again takes the ride on Monday, knows he can expect one thing from Barton Bank: the unexpected. "He's not a natural over a fence, he's got his own way of doing things," he said. "But if he gets his act together and does a clear round I can see him repeating his win. We know that he's got an engine."

Francois Doumen, who some time ago left Sacha Distel behind as the favourite Frenchman with one section of the community, does have two representatives, the hardy annual, The Fellow, and Algan. The former, the former winner, is another who gets a good report. "I would say he is in slightly better shape and form than this time last year," Doumen said. "About four weeks before the King George last year he had a bit of a dirty nose. Soft ground is not ideal and may suit the other horses more, but he is ready.

"But mentally, Algan may not be prepared for this sort of race. In a big crowd he might get a bit emotional, but he is capable of causing an upset. He is really a handicapper but this horse is solid value as a stayer. He's improving, he likes it soft andup to now he's always been a very secure jumper."

It was fencing that let down Travado last year, and the gelding's capitulation came at the 13th just as the envelope containing the answer to his doubtful staying capacity was about to be opened. Nick Henderson is happy to let his horse have another go. "He's in good form," the Lambourn trainer said, "and I'm still optimistic he'll last."

Travado's capsize 12 months ago was unusual, the first time he had fallen in his life. However, Monday's King George, thrillingly and competitively, should be no different from normal.

Comments