King drinks at top table after Katchit performs a small wonder

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The Independent Online

So it's true what they say. Size simply doesn't matter. Katchit, who houses the heart of a lion between the ribs of a pit pony, yesterday returned to Cheltenham and reminded everyone that horsepower is nothing without willpower.

In the process he finally relieved the recent Irish siege of the Smurfit Kappa Champion Hurdle – the world's most coveted prize over timber – and also stemmed a still more prohibitive trend. Over the past 23 years it had become axiomatic that five-year-olds remain too immature to beat their seniors up this punishing hill. The last 73 to run in the race had all been beaten, but yesterday the 74th and 75th, Katchit and Punjabi, finished first and third.

And this was a rare, bare-knuckle brawl of a race. Yet it contained still more vivid rebukes for anyone who thinks he can predict a thoroughbred's next move. It is simply a question of whether they will astound you over months and years, or in a matter of seconds; and whether the ultimate dividend will be joy, or anguish.

At one end of the spectrum was Sizing Europe, who started 2-1 favourite to give the Irish their eighth success in 10 years. He coasted through the race with all the pomp of Istabraq himself, and many were clearing their throats to acclaim a brilliant new champion even at the second last. Before they knew it, however, the spools had come loose and he was receding drunkenly into the pack, pulled up to a walk on the run-in.

At the other was the winner, who was bought as "a fun horse" over a drink at Salisbury racecourse. In those days, Katchit was a plucky but pedestrian handicapper on the Flat, trained by the former footballer Mick Channon. Collaring Alan King in the bar, Channon said: "I think you ought to look at mine in the last, he'd do your job."

As it happens, Katchit won that day, for the only time in his Flat career. "I went and had a look at him in the winner's enclosure," King remembered. "I bought him that night for £30,000. He looked a bit smaller by the time he arrived in the yard, and I got a bit of ribbing when they saw him. But I thought he'd be an ideal sort for a juvenile hurdle at Market Rasen a couple of months later, and when he won I thought: 'That's it, we've nailed it in one hit.' It sure as hell wasn't this I had in mind."

Every time King raised the bar, Katchit coped serenely, and by the time he came here last year was acknowledged as a thorough freak in his new calling. He careered home in the Triumph Hurdle, but Persian War was the last horse – in 1968 – to claim the four-year-olds' crown and follow up in the Champion the following year. And while King had been perfectly satisfied with Katchit's first three efforts in "open" company – despite winning just once – he had candidly told his owners that they would be lucky to make the frame. "I've been so relaxed, all day long," he admitted. "I simply didn't expect to win."

Little wonder, if he appraised the opposition beforehand. The brawny Sizing Europe had been brought here in magnificent condition by his young trainer, Henry de Bromhead, while Harchibald had mocked King's little upstart when they met at Newcastle in November. Then there was Osana, who had beaten him here a fortnight later – but only a fortnight later, and that is what had given King hope. "I just think that race came a bit quick for him," he said. "I'd made no secret of the fact that I thought we would get a bit closer to Osana this time."

And it soon became apparent that finishing in the vicinity of Osana might very well do the job. Tom Scudamore sent that horse freewheeling into an early lead, and any assumption that he might have overdone it – he was on and off the bridle from halfway – was soon dispelled by the ravenous way in which Osana rallied once Robert Thornton had sent Katchit into the lead two out.

In fact, very little had got into the race at all. While the two protagonists tore off the gloves up the hill, Katchit ultimately holding out by a length, Punjabi kept on best of the rest, albeit without remotely threatening. Sublimity was first home of the Irish, in fourth, a somewhat reclusive preparation apparently his undoing as he failed to see through a promising move three out.

The others were all strewn in their wake, bobbing up and down like shivering survivors of a shipwreck. It had been such an unflinching duel that Thornton was given a four-day suspension for his use of the whip, compounding a similar offence in winning the opener. "But the more you get stuck into him, the more he gives you," he said.

Four winners last year – including three Grade Ones for King – qualified Thornton as the Festival's top rider, and now he had won two of the first three races. As such this was a moment of consolidation, rather than breakthrough, but there is no mistaking the fact that his partnership with King is now one of the most formidable in these islands.

There was a time, during their mutual apprenticeship under the stern eye of the late David Nicholson, just over the hill from here, when they could not stand the sight of each other. "I was a snotty-nosed teenager then," Thornton admitted with a grin. "In fairness, I think we've both grown up a fair bit in the meantime," King responded. "As I've often said, I wouldn't swap him for anyone."

King himself has long been identified by Paul Nicholls as the trainer most likely to end his reign as champion. Though they are good friends, King has made no secret of his impatience for that day. At Newbury last month he shed his customary ease of manner and seethed impotently after watching Nicholls beat his champion steeplechaser, Voy Por Ustedes, for the second time this winter.

Stage by stage, however, he is gaining the summit. It must be hoped that De Bromhead can at least leave the foothills behind, having conducted himself with epic decorum after the abrupt betrayal of his hopes. Sizing Europe has put his Co Waterford stables on the map, but the real landmark of quality was his bearing – entirely innocent of self-pity – in defeat.

"He was flying," De Bromhead reflected. "Andrew [McNamara] gave him the perfect ride and the horse was in control. Coming to the last, Andrew said the horse lost his action. I don't know why. We'll have a look tomorrow, sometimes these things come to light in the morning. When it happens, your heart sinks. But life goes on."

If Sizing Europe had looked the sole aristocrat during the race, in the end the spoils were contested by a pair of yeoman sluggers – and won by a horse that might have modelled his leonine outlook on the flowing blond mane of his rider. Though he shaved his head for charity last year, Thornton's locks are again of startling length once unfurled from his helmet.

But then that was exactly what counted for most yesterday: the gold that lies hidden away. "This horse has never ceased to amaze me," King mused. "He wouldn't be 16 hands. It's remarkable how it has all worked out. Mind you, we've had plenty of expensive ones that don't make it. It just shows you. You see so many soft bastards, it's the heart that makes the difference. And I can't train that into them. They either have it or they don't."

Champion Hurdle placings

1 Katchit (R Thornton) 10-1

2 Osana (T Scudamore) 9-2

3 Punjabi (B Geraghty) 25-1

15 ran.

Won by 1 length, 5 lengths

Also ran: 2-1 favourite Sizing Europe (4th, Sublimity 7-1)

Tote: win £8.80; places £2.50, £2.60, £5.40. Tote

Exacta: £42.60. Computer Straight Forecast: £52.10

Tote Trifecta: £757.80.

Non-runners: Kalderon, Salford City.