Even on a grey morning, Alan King commands one of the most sumptuous views on the Turf. As his horses snort up the escarpment towards him, the Marlborough Downs pitch and sway towards tiered horizons, the peace broken only by the desultory echo of gunshot among the yellowing copses. To King, however, each rumble might represent a fresh call to arms. He now has 190 horses on his books at Barbury Castle, and the first meaningful skirmishes of their campaign are imminent.
Over the next two weekends, King plans to restore two of his biggest guns to the fray. This Sunday, at Kempton, Katchit makes his first appearance since March, when he seemed to break out of that diminutive frame to roar up the Cheltenham hill in the Smurfit Champion Hurdle. Then, seven days later, Voy Por Ustedes goes back to Aintree, where he was last seen in April, careering home on his first start over two and a half miles. Himself a Cheltenham Festival winner over two miles in 2007, he is set to try his luck over three in the Stan James King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day.
"Katchit certainly hasn't grown, but he's a little bit thicker," King said. "As a five-year-old, he has developed as he's entitled to. He's in a conditions race with an 8lb penalty, and it's just somewhere to start him off. The plan is pretty much the same as last year – all being well, he'll go on to the Boylesports International at Cheltenham, have a break after Christmas, and go for the Kingwell Hurdle in February.
"Voy Por Ustedes always comes to the boil very quickly, though he is more relaxed nowadays than he used to be. We're not looking beyond the King George with him. If he's going to get three miles anywhere, it will be round Kempton, so we'll see how he gets on and go from there."
The authorities long since abandoned any intelligible demarcation of the jumps season, the last one ostensibly having ended at Sandown in April and the present one begun at Ludlow and Wetherby the following day. Nowadays it falls to the horses like these, rather than the fixture list, to identify the shifting rhythm. And there is a consensus of quality. Paul Nicholls, for instance, identified Chepstow last Saturday as the start of his season in earnest, and duly won the last four races.
King saddled the favourite for the big hurdle race on that card, in Squadron, but was beaten by Crack Away Jack, trained by Emma Lavelle and already backed to seize Katchit's crown next March. "I suppose if you're going to be a Champion Hurdle horse, you want to be doing something like that to Squadron," King reflected. "Actually I was surprised they made me favourite. I know what Katchit would do to Squadron, put it that way. But time will tell."
Nicholls, of course, is the man setting standards that King approaches ever more closely by the year. King protests that he is still "miles off" challenging for the championship, but last season made the podium for the first time. In fact, he has stepped up the ladder in each of the past four seasons: eighth, sixth, fourth, third. And, while he has saddled three winners at each of the last two Cheltenham Festivals, he has all the time been investing in the next wave. No fewer than 76 horses in his care are aged either three or four.
"I do try to move on a lot of the horses that have gone up the handicap, because the way that racing is framed nowadays means that they are going to struggle," he said. "Hopefully, this policy of bringing on the younger horses is now starting to filter through. We were thin on the ground with novice chasers last season, but we've got a big team this time. And those going hurdling include the winners of 25 bumper races, as well as a decent team of three-year-olds off the Flat."
The latter include Mount Helicon, a fringe Group performer for André Fabre, while King suggests Greenbridge, over fences, and Bakbenscher, over hurdles, as names to monitor among those who pleased in their education last season. Greenbridge, incidentally, is likely to join Katchit on Sunday's card at Kempton.
One of the few horses left behind by the stable's overall momentum is My Way De Solzen. King had pulled off a remarkable stunt the previous season by winning the Arkle Trophy, over two miles, with a horse that had already won a hurdles championship over three, but he proved a wretched disappointment when sent back up in trip last season. He will resume over shorter distances, starting in the Haldon Gold Cup at Exeter next month.
"We don't know what went wrong," King admitted. "Physically, we never found anything amiss. Possibly a hard race first time out, against Kauto Star at Haydock, might have hurt him. Anyway, he's had a long break, and while it might seem a silly thing to say of a horse who has won [a championship hurdle] over three miles, I've always doubted his stamina. It might have been a case of his class getting him through."
But the same asset is certainly equipping his trainer for the long haul, albeit he eschews all talk of future summits. "We only ever hope to improve on what we've done before," he said, before breaking into a wry grin. "Though that is becoming increasingly difficult."Reuse content