Kempton wishes on a Star

Track deploys frost covers to safeguard King George as spectre of white Xmas looms

If ever there was an inappropriate setting for the promotion of a midwinter racing festival, an ice bar was probably it. A week tomorrow Kempton will host the King George VI Chase, the William Hill-sponsored £200,000 highlight of the festive season, and the one thing Barney Clifford, clerk of the course at the Sunbury track, does not want is to be frozen solid.

Guests at yesterday's launch in central London were welcomed by huskies, drank from glasses made of solidified water and huddled in fur-edged thermal suits. Clifford shivered, not wholly because of the cold. "The only white Christmas I want," he said, "is the sort that Desert Orchid brought."

In advance of the unpromising forecast, Clifford yesterday authorised the application of frost covers on the course at Kempton. "I try to de-risk as much as possible in the build-up," he said. It takes nearly 500 people, full-timers and casual labour, to put on the Kempton show, which should attract a crowd of 20,000. "Abandonment is our worst nightmare," Clifford added, "and what the weathermen say is coming over the weekend and next week is not good news. But it's supposed to be getting warmer from Christmas Day on."

This will be the 10th year that Clifford has been in charge of the two-day festival, which this year features Kauto Star's attempt at winning an unprecedented fourth King George in a row. Clifford's day will start on the track at 5.30, checking the raceability of the precious turf. On an area the size of a racecourse, undersoil heating is not an option and safety of man and beast is paramount. "Even in the dark," he said, "I can get a feel for it."

Should Kauto Star prevail – he is 8-13 favourite with the sponsors to do what even Desert Orchid could not – it will be one of the sport's seminal moments. Clifford's favourite times during his tenure, though, have more to do with his former job, as a jockey.

He recalls two years with especial affection for unashamedly personal reasons. "The year Florida Pearl won," he said, "was the year after he'd made a horrible mistake down the back. That time, I'd offered them the chance to school over those fences when he arrived from Ireland a couple of days before and they didn't. The second year, they did, and though I didn't ride him over the fences, I did ride him on the track, which was very special."

But it was a hurdler, not a chaser, who sticks in Clifford's mind most, the recently retired Harchibald. The talented but enigmatic Noel Meade-trained gelding won the Christmas Hurdle, the highlight of the meeting's second day, twice. "The first time," said Clifford, "I gave him a blowout round the track on Christmas Day, and he didn't do a tap. I took him out again on Boxing Day morning and in the straight I set my hands and let him more or less run away with me, just to get him to work.

"In the race, when he came to the same place, he did more or less the same and Noel asked me what the hell I'd done to make him do that. Whatever people called him, he was an extraordinary horse. I'd ridden some good ones, but never one who could go from 20mph to 40 in a matter of strides."

Kauto Star's trainer, Paul Nicholls, yesterday reported his stable star's own turbo boost in full working order. "He came up the gallop with Big Buck's yesterday," he said, "and he has come on a ton since Haydock."

Turf account: Sue Montgomery


Katy's Secret (6.50 Wolverhampton) Speedily bred filly who went down narrowly to an odds-on shot on her debut on this track and can only improve for her introduction to her job.

Next best

Topcroft (3.15 Southwell) Has made rapid progress for change of stables and application of a visor, and still may be ahead of the handicapper in his search for a four-timer.

One to watch

Look out for Sunwise (P F Nicholls), a dual Flat winner for John Oxx and now reportedly shaping better in his new job than this week's Newbury winner Advisor.

Where the money's going

Stravinsky Dance is 9-1 to 7-1 with William Hill for Saturday's Ladbroke Hurdle at Ascot.

Chris McGrath's Nap

Be A Devil (9.20 Wolverhampton).