Countdown to the Cheltenham Festival: Deposed King unable to join fight for his crown

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The Independent Online

The boldest of Cheltenham dreams has evaporated with the news that Kicking King, the Gold Cup hero of 2005, will not make it back to the scene of his greatest triumph tomorrow week. The Tom Taaffe-trained 10-year-old had made a remarkable comeback this season after more than two years off the track with a leg injury, but failed to sparkle in a gallop yesterday.

"His legs are fine," said his owner, Conor Clarkson, "but while his work was reasonable, it was not of the standard required to be running in a Gold Cup or even of the same quality that he'd been producing in the last couple of months. We know that when he's on top form he'd quicken up, quicken again and then take time to pull up, but there was none of that this morning."

Although Kicking King, who had been fifth market choice at around 20-1 to regain his crown, will miss next week's meeting with Kauto Star and Denman, a showdown with the current stars may yet be on the cards. "He has not been retired," added Clarkson. "He'll have a break now – there's something amiss and he may be carrying a low-grade virus – and if he starts to sparkle again, then the Gold Cup at Punchestown will be his target."

Though disappointed, Clarkson, Taaffe and jockey Barry Geraghty may find consolation with novice chaser Finger On The Pulse, due to run in the Jewson Chase a week today. "His work was awesome," added Clarkson, "and it's good to be going to the equivalent of the Olympics with a live chance."

Also missing from next week's Festival will be Graham Lee, who broke his jaw in two places early last month. The injury will keep Ferdy Murphy's stable jockey out of the saddle for at least another two weeks. "We'll miss him badly," said Murphy, "he's at the top of his game right now."

Lee's absence will be felt most keenly on the Leyburn yard's fancied candidate for the Ryanair Chase, L'Antartique, who will now be ridden by Paul Carberry. "I'm not saying Paul won't," added Murphy, "but Graham gets a fantastic tune out of him."

The countdown to next week gathered pace with the penultimate set of declarations for the three Grade One contests on Tuesday. The favourite Sizing Europe heads the 21 left in the Champion Hurdle, with no surprises among the defectors, who include the dual winner Hardy Eustace.

Forty two horses remain in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle, for which Irish raider Captain Cee Bee tops the market. The winner of the Festival opener two years ago, Noland, is now favourite for the following Arkle Trophy, for which he still has 16 rivals.

The removal of Beef Or Salmon from the Grand National field at yesterday's forfeit stage has put the weights up 2lb, with Celestial Gold now at the top of the handicap on 11st 12lb and favourite Cloudy Lane on 10st 10lb. A bumper 125 remain in the Aintree marathon; Beef Or Salmon will now contest the Irish equivalent on Easter Monday.

At Nad Al Sheba today the South African star Lucky Find faces Godolphin colourbearer Jalil in the 10-furlong Group two Dubai World Cup trial won by Dubai Millennium, Electrocutionist and Street Cry before taking the real thing. The same trainers, Mike de Kock and Saeed Bin Suroor, will be represented by Asiatic Boy and Blackat Blackitten in the mile contest.

Kauto Star or Denman? The professionals give their verdicts

The Cheltenham Gold Cup encounter a week today between the steeplechasing giants Kauto Star and Denman has dominated the turf all season. Today, the trainer Peter Bowen gives his view.

"One thing I do know is that I'd like to have either or both in my yard. But I don't know which one will win, it's so hard to pick one or the other. The ideal result would be a dead-heat; it's a shame that either of them will get beat, but one will. I suppose if I'm forced to name one it would be Kauto Star. They're both great horses, but he's the one who has done it. Maybe he's just got that little bit extra that makes him a seriously special horse."

Chris McGrath

Nap: Supreme Builder

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