Oats in line for King George

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One Man must now be wondering if he is racehorse or New Age traveller. The grey has once again toured virtually the length of the country in his van without getting a run following the abandonment of yesterday's King George VI Chase meeting at Kempton.

The gelding, who was withdrawn from the Hennessy Gold Cup last month, remained at Sunbury overnight as plans were drawn up immediately to run the Grade One race on this afternoon's card. But with another hard frost forecast it seems the second contingency plan for the King George -a switch to Sandown on Saturday week -will have to be employed.

If Esher does get the event from its sister course there is likely to be at least one celebrated addition to the field in Master Oats, the Gold Cup winner, who was originally scheduled to compete in Leopardstown's Ericsson Chase. "He was due to travel to Ireland tomorrow morning but he will now not leave until Thursday morning, by which time we should know if the meeting is on," Kim Bailey, the gelding's trainer, said yesterday. "If it is off he would be re-routed to Sandown as long as the ground is respectable. I would also look at the Welsh National if that was rescheduled."

Few should bet against Master Oats running in, and winning, the King George as he has already triumphed in these circumstances twice before, first when the Greenalls Gold Cup was moved to Kempton and then when Newbury hosted the Welsh National.

Kempton's card was the best, and last, of 10 cards to be claimed by the elements yesterday. There seemed to be more inspections at the track than in a squaddies' barracks as course officials started monitoring the ground before sun up. By noon frost was still imbedded in the terrain, however, and there was little option but to call the card off. "We gave it our best shot," Edward Gillespie, the United Racecourses managing director said. "About 8,000 people had arrived and problems occurred when those still coming in met those leaving the track. But everyone was good-humoured about it."

There was certainly more equanimity than following Gillespie's last abandonment of a day's sport, at Cheltenham earlier this month, when spectators who had received no news of problems at the course would happily have built a scaffold for him.

Yesterday, the public were kept informed (although this must have been of little comfort to those on the road from far-flung destinations) and the increasingly desperate official noises suggested the worst from some way out. Critics of the management were hard to find. "They have done the right thing," Charlie Brooks, the Upper Lambourn trainer, said. "They warned everyone early of the problems and have given it a shot. They would have looked pretty silly if the temperature had risen five degrees. They have handled the situation beautifully."

Word from the jockeys' room suggested there were not many inmates who would have relished colliding with the frozen Middlesex turf. "Patches of the ground are very, very hard," Richard Dunwoody, who had been scheduled to ride One Man, said. "They have given it every chance and the professionals in racing accept it, but it is hard on the public."

All ante-post bets on the King George have been carried forward to today and will be refunded if the race moves on to Sandown. Book Of Music and Brief Gale were already non-runners before the shutters came down yesterday (the first time the race had been called off since 1981), and the French pair of Algan and Val D'Alene will not compete in the unlikely event of Kempton surviving a 7.30 inspection this morning. "I can't see how the ground can improve," Francois Doumen, their trainer, said. "I think they will be better at home. The staff have made a big sacrifice to come here on Christmas Eve."

David Nicholson, the champion trainer, praised Kempton for their attitude, but then had a dig at the British Horseracing Board for not relocating more big races. "I think they should save all the top events," he said. "The BHB should pull their fingers out and get some races on for decent horses." This should not have been unexpected from the Duke. He likes picking on people on Boxing Day.