Alan King knows perfectly well that it would be churlish to grumble about your lot on a morning like yesterday, when the Marlborough Downs twitched in a haze of milky sunlight, and he could parade no fewer than 18 candidates for the Cheltenham Festival. After all, he won three Grade One races at the meeting last year, in the process confirming Paul Nicholls in the opinion that his friend and rival could some day end his reign as champion trainer.
On the other hand, there was no mistaking King's exasperation at Newbury 10 days ago, when Voy Por Ustedes was beaten for the second time this winter by a horse trained by Nicholls. The two men laughed it off on the phone a few days later, though Nicholls did return to the matter in his Racing Post column – observing that he, too, used to seethe in the same way, but had since learned that it was always best to count to 10 before saying anything.
Opening his gates to the press yesterday, King was reminded to follow this counsel if anyone asked a stupid question. "I told Paul that I had counted to 33 at Newbury," he replied. "But my head still came off!"
Though he is enjoying another excellent season, and stands third in the table, King has endured a frustrating time with two of those three Cheltenham winners. My Way De Solzen had seemed destined to join the Nicholls giants, Kauto Star and Denman, in the Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup, but has not been seen since running deplorably at Kempton on Boxing Day. He resurfaces over hurdles at Fontwell on Sunday, with his Festival options reduced to the Ladbrokes World Hurdle and Ryanair Chase. The Gold Cup has instead been assigned to Halcon Genelardais, so valiant in defeat in the Welsh National.
"We have given My Way De Solzen a break since Kempton, and treated him for ulcers," King said. "He had jumped and travelled beautifully at Haydock before that, when I just think he needed the run. While I was disappointed then, at least I could understand it. But I was mortified at Kempton. Until we get Sunday out of the way, there's no point making plans. But I haven't lost my faith in him. His work continues to be of the highest quality."
The bookmakers now rank Voy Por Ustedes behind both Master Minded and Twist Magic in his defence of the Queen Mother Champion Chase, but King remains hopeful of revenge on both horses on the day that matters most. "We know he loves Cheltenham," King reasoned. "He's a spring horse, and much better when he can bounce off good ground.
"I think it's possible he wants farther. Maybe that's why the race suits him so well, because you have really got to get the trip. I'd like to try him over two and a half miles at Aintree."
On the face of it, Katchit has failed to make the transition to open company after dominating the juvenile hurdlers last season, having been beaten by Harchibald and Osana in the autumn. But he bounced back at Wincanton last Saturday, and King believes he can make his presence felt in the Smurfit Champion Hurdle. "I don't think he was doing an awful lot in front at Wincanton," he said. "We'd given him a break after he ran against Osana, which was his second run in two weeks, and I'd like to think he can get closer this time."
King has come up with a very similar type for the JCB Triumph Hurdle this year in Franchoek. "Like Katchit, I think he has improved as the season has gone on," he said. "The more winning he does, the more confident he gets. I think he sets the standard, and a pretty high one. They need to get the trip in that race. So many of these flash buggers come off the Flat and don't see it out."
There was a time when some might have used a similar formula to describe Alan Munro, but he has since proved himself one of the most rounded characters to reach the top as a Flat jockey in recent years. And he has shown fortitude, too. Having been sidelined by health problems since August 2006, yesterday Munro made the perfect return to British racing, riding General Blucher to win a maiden at Lingfield. It was fitting that he was wearing the silks of the horse's trainer, Peter Chapple-Hyam, whose fidelity has so heartened him during his absence.
"When we went past the line it was a great feeling," Munro said. "It's nice to do it in Pete's colours. We don't have a formal agreement, just a friendship. When he needs to put me on and take me off, he does so. It works really well like that, there are never any problems, and I'll be riding work for him tomorrow morning."
Nap: Dundridge Native
NB: Fabulous Jet
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