The notion that "they never come back" is usually reserved for boxers, prompted by the 1932 Fred Newmeyer movie of that name. Yesterday morning one of racing's undisputed champeens continued his quest to refute the notion, with a more than satisfactory workout ahead of his bout at Gowran Park on Saturday. Kicking King, the 2005 Gold Cup winner, wants to be a contender again.
The 10-year-old damaged a tendon in the process of winning his second King George VI Chase nine months after his Cheltenham crown. Given time, patience and the best of treatment, he made a tremendous return to the fray last month, beating all bar Nickname after an absence of 759 days.
And one of the first of the cornermen to receive the plaudits of trainer Tom Taaffe was vet Jimmy Kelly, who devised and acted on the programme of treatment that has – touching the contents of an Ikea warehouse – had such a satisfactory outcome.
Kelly has a small mixed practice at Naas, not far from the Taaffe yard at Straffan. "It's always great when you get them right again," he said, "because so many times it doesn't happen. But Kicking King was an excellent patient. The ones that tend to jump around don't help themselves, but he couldn't have been better. He's a lovely horse, very intelligent and good-natured, with a big heart."
The injury to the Old Vic gelding's left foreleg occurred high on the tendon, just below the knee, a site which offers the best prognosis. "We had a controlled-exercise regime from day one," said Kelly. "We try not to stand them in, but get them out of the box as soon as possible; if you keep them moving you don't get so many adhesions. He was walking within 10 days, in hand and then on the walker."
In more than 40 years of veterinary work, Kelly has been there, seen most, including the best horse trained by Taaffe's father, Pat, the brilliant, impetuous Captain Christy. The winner of the 1974 Gold Cup, he damaged his off-fore at exercise after taking the 1976 King George. "He was one who didn't come back," he said.
Kelly deflected praise to Taaffe and the team at Portree Stables. "I didn't do anything any different to most vets," he said, "but it's a huge help when the guys you're doing the work for are proper horsemen and do what they're asked to do."
Taaffe took up that theme. "It was a concerted effort," he said yesterday. "Everyone has had a part to play, and without each one it wouldn't have been possible."
By Saturday, it will be 23 days since Kicking King's reappearance. Taaffe's first task this morning will be to run an anxious hand down that precious foreleg, checking for signs of heat. "It's something that you're always conscious of now," he said, "it will never go away. His work this morning went well, thank God."
Taaffe resisted any temptation to run Conor Clarkson's colourbearer in the Hennessy Gold Cup won by The Listener on Sunday. "He would have had only two and a half weeks between if he had run, and after such a long lay-off we thought it better to wait. The conditions for the Red Mills are ideal, so we're looking forward to it."
Should Kicking King come through the test, the gloves will be off for Cheltenham. It should not be forgotten that like Kauto Star, he has won a Gold Cup and two King Georges, and his peak rating of 182 with Timeform puts him among the elite.
Nothing would please Kelly better than to go to Cheltenham with his famous patient, but he is not tempting fate. "The leg seem super now," he said, "but you have to remember that when his leg was perfect, it went. And he's now running on a remould."
Kicking King's rivals in Saturday's two-and-a-half mile contest will be headed by the talented pair Hi Cloy, who bounced back to winning ways at Thurles last month, and Justified, who beat One Cool Cookie over the course and distance in October. Both horses have the Ryanair Chase at Cheltenham as their target.
Justified is another on the right side of the fine injury line, running for the first time since picking up a minor knock at Clonmel the following month, and also holds an entry over hurdles on Saturday. "He's very well-in in the hurdle," said trainer Dusty Sheehy, "so we've had to consider it. But I'm leaning towards the chase. But whatever, we're just glad to have the horse back to himself."Reuse content