Experience has taught trainers to view the treatment of tendon injuries in steeplechasers as the equivalent of using glue or sticky tape on a snapped elastic band. Every now and then, however, their patience will be rewarded with the sort of comeback that yesterday introduced fresh substance to a possibility that had seemed to stretch credulity to the limit – that Kicking King could yet retrieve the Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Racing for the first time since winning his second King George VI Chase in 2005, Kicking King faced only two rivals for the Normans Grove Chase at Gowran Park. But nobody really gave him a prayer of beating Nickname, who had his ideal conditions, over barely two miles and after 759 days off. Tom Taaffe, his trainer, had emphasised that he was merely hoping to blow away the cobwebs.
As it was, however, Kicking King would almost certainly have won but for blundering over the penultimate fence. Even though Barry Geraghty sensibly resisted any temptation to use the whip with the race still in the balance, it took an all-out drive from Ruby Walsh to get Nickname home by just over a length.
True, Kicking King had been left to his own devices in front and was engaged by his rivals only when turning into the straight, but he soon had Nickname in such trouble that the 1-4 favourite was matched at 11-1 on Betfair. With Newmill also showing signs of revival, briefly taking over after Kicking King's mistake, this was one of those rare races where everyone could go home happy.
"He ran a cracker," Taaffe said. "When you bring one back after that length of time, it's a journey of a thousand miles – and it begins with one step. He was a bit rusty and short of match practice, and you could see that two out and at the first ditch. It shows how good a horse he is. The relief will be in two or three days, but I'd be surprised if he had a problem as we have been very careful with him."
His inclination now is to bring Kicking King back to Gowran for the Red Mills Chase on 16 February, rather than tackle the Hennessy Gold Cup at Leopardstown six days previously. "The Hennessy is in 17 days and that might be on the tight side," he said. "I would not want to bottom him out over three miles in the Hennessy, and he gets an 8lb allowance again in the Red Mills."
The justifiable rapture provoked by Kauto Star does not alter the fact that Kicking King's own CV matches his record of two wins in the King George and one in the Gold Cup. As such William Hill's offer of 20-1 for Cheltenham seemed particularly generous, and sure enough he was soon clipped to 16-1.
After all, some ominous smoke signals had already emerged, earlier in the day, from Jackdaws Castle. Exotic Dancer, the Gold Cup runner-up, will miss the Letheby & Christopher Chase at Cheltenham tomorrow and there seems to be doubt as to whether he will make it to the Festival. Barry Simpson, his owner's racing manager, spoke with Jonjo O'Neill yesterday and revealed that Exotic Dancer had pulled a muscle in his hindquarters.
"We're not sure how serious it is," Simpson said. "The vet is due to look at him on Friday morning, and I will be present at the yard to hear the diagnosis. Once the full extent of the problem is known, we will make a further decision and statement then. It could be that he has pulled the muscle in his work yesterday, which was absolutely brilliant, or it may be when he was having a roll in the sand pit."
There was a still bleaker bulletin, however, from Willie Mullins. Glencove Marina, favourite for the Irish Independent Arkle Trophy after winning his first two chases in dashing fashion, has suffered a tendon injury and his trainer is already braced for the possibility that he will miss the whole of next season, as well as the rest of this one. "It's very disappointing," Mullins said. "He was the most exciting horse I've had for years."
J'y Vole did her best to cheer him up when winning the novice chase at Gowran by a distance, while his son, Patrick, won him the bumper on Drive On Regardless. Much the most pertinent consolation, however, was the resurrection of Kicking King.
Nap: Bridgewater Boys