The beach at Redcar, already depicted as Dunkirk by the makers of Atonement, has recently become the setting for another heroic rearguard action. In the case of Ferdy Murphy and Kalahari King, however, the encircling forces have been the weather, and time.
Kalahari King, beaten in a photo at the Cheltenham Festival as a novice, returns next month as the North's leading candidate for the Queen Mother Champion Chase. But he has yet to run this season and owes any prospect of taking up his comeback engagement at Doncaster on Saturday entirely to the strand at Redcar.
"He'd have been all right except for the bloody weather," Murphy said yesterday. "But we caught it bad up here. We had 16 inches of snow for two and a half weeks, and then we had rain on top so we went from snow-bound to flooded. It's a 50-mile round trip to Redcar but he made 14 trips there during that three-week period."
Murphy's stable jockey, Graham Lee, will school Kalahari King this morning and the two men will then decide whether the horse is ready to go to Doncaster or would benefit from another week.
"You couldn't work a horse on the beach," Murphy said. "But you could hack him – you could hack him for seven miles. It's not really the kind of thing you'd want to be doing with a Champion Chase contender. The first morning we got him back on the gallops he was very stuffy and an ordinary horse found him out. The next day he worked with a good one and worked all over him; and then he worked better than a six-furlong horse. But he still had a real blow after that."
The Blue Square Handicap Chase looks a sensible target for Kalahari King, who would only need to run creditably under a big weight to keep his Festival hopes alive.
"Graham will put him over 10 fences in the morning," Murphy said. "And if he's not happy we can always wait for the Game Spirit Chase at Newbury the following week. It would be a different kind of race, but the only problem I'd have with it would be the ground – it was horrible down there last Friday."
Murphy has a fine Festival record, and brought Kalahari King expertly to the boil for the Irish Independent Arkle Trophy last year. But his task has been complicated this time round, first by an infection just before a scheduled resumption at Kelso, and then by a splint. "The lad who rides him every day said that he just wasn't moving right," Murphy said. "We had him X-rayed and scanned, and found nothing. But then a few days later, lo and behold, up came a splint."
The favourite for this year's Arkle, Captain Cee Bee, heads to Naas on Saturday for his final rehearsal – just one vignette in what should prove a really instructive weekend either side of the Irish Sea. Dunguib, the outstanding novice hurdler, will be among those in action at Leopardstown the following day, while Punchestowns and Binocular will begin a crucial 10 days or so for their trainer, Nicky Henderson, at Sandown on Saturday.
Sadly, all this excitement will be lost on Noel Fehily who aggravated an old shoulder injury in a fall at Cheltenham on Saturday and paid a dispiriting visit to a specialist yesterday. He was told that he may need surgery and must reconcile himself to missing both Cheltenham and Aintree.
After the loss of yesterday's jumping to frost, milder conditions should ensure some decent sport today, not least at Taunton where Cappa Bleu, champion hunter last season, resurfaces in a novice hurdle after an exasperating start for his new trainer in the autumn. "He needs to get his confidence back and, hopefully, a nice clear round will help him enjoy the job again," Evan Williams said.
"It's a good thing he can run in races likes this. He won the Foxhunter after only a handful of point-to-points, he then ran in a novice chase over the wrong trip, on the wrong track, and ran in the Hennessy where his inexperience came to light. He had a fair old slap there, and basically we just wanted to start again, really."
Turf account: Chris McGrath
Babe Heffron (4.10 Taunton) Probably set off too fast last time but confirmed his improvement by rallying gamely between two who had closed from off the pace. The one he beat off into third has won since, and this step back up in trip is sure to suit.
Pistolet Dove (3.50 Folkestone) Having hinted at better to come in a light career over hurdles, he duly proved well treated when switched to fences at Leicester last month. His strong finish that day suggests he will respond positively to Tony McCoy.
One to watch
Hopeful Star (Jonjo O'Neill) Had shown promise in qualifying for a rating and showed due improvement when stepped up in trip for his handicap debut at Ffos Las last week.
Where the money's going
Cooldine, so disappointing on his comeback, is obviously expected to do better in the Hennessy Gold Cup at Leopardstown on Sunday – now 5-2 from 7-2 with William Hill.