Perhaps it was only when he left the Cheltenham Festival last year, without a winner for the first time since 2003, that Alan King truly grasped what he had achieved in the meantime. Measured by every line on his career graph – winners, prize-money, the trainers' table – his progress had almost come to seem automatic. Suddenly, however, all the indices plunged with the health of his horses. In 2008-09, he had sent out 136 winners to win nearly £1.9m; last season he inched his way painfully to 76 wins, worth half the prize-money. So when he says that he would gladly settle for a single winner at the Festival next month, it is not the decorous formula it might have seemed after he won three Grade One prizes there in 2007. All he craves, this time, is something to seal the renewed momentum and morale of his stable.
And that seemed a highly feasible ambition yesterday, when he paraded the cream of 30-odd Cheltenham candidates at his traditional media open day. True, the animals looming out of a murky, melancholy morning on the Wiltshire Downs are largely being aimed at handicaps, rather than championship races. But they also included one of the country's best novice chasers, in Medermit, and one of its most progressive hurdlers, in Mille Chief – emerging talents, eligible for a big breakthrough.
"Deep down, I wasn't really expecting a winner last year," King admitted. "Bensalem had been our big hope of the week, and when he tipped up two out, going so well, I knew we were struggling. In fairness, a lot of them ran well, plenty were placed. But it wasn't just that the horses hadn't been right. The old guard had gone. We've got the younger brigade coming through now, and we've strength in depth. They seem in good order, too, taking their races really well. And it is true that when you get your confidence back, you tend to make the right decisions more. Races tend to fall right for you."
Medermit, beaten a neck at the Festival as a novice hurdler, returns for the Irish Independent Arkle Trophy after winning a very strong novice chase at Sandown earlier this month. "That was over two and a half miles, and he'll be dropping back to two," King said. "But I've always felt you need to get the trip really well in the Arkle. We won it with My Way De Solzen, and this horse would have more speed than him. I think he'll travel very well, and his jumping has got better with each race. 'Choc' [Robert Thornton] has done a really good job with him. After Sandown he said that he'd really nailed it now, that he knew exactly how to ride him."
Mille Chief only scrambled home at Wincanton last Saturday, hardly seeming to advertise his competence to emulate Katchit, who won the same race in 2008 before following up at Cheltenham. But their trainer is emphatic that Mille Chief will show far more dash granted better going in the Stan James Champion Hurdle.
"One or two people thought he had a hard race, but I have to say I disagree," King said. "Yes, 'Choc' did get stuck into him, but it was only from the last. It was the first battle he has had, and the match practice will have done him a lot of good. I'm under no illusions, he still has a lot to find. But he has yet to race on good ground, and I can assure you that he'll be much better when he does. He's a very good-actioned horse, with a lot of gears, and the ground the other day blunted all that."
Smad Place went on to restore his JCB Triumph Hurdle credentials later on the same card, following a midwinter blip, but King's revival would perhaps be best condensed by a Festival success for Bensalem, who was meanwhile finishing second over hurdles up at Haydock. "He ran well in atrocious ground," King said. "He probably got there too soon, and ended up getting dragged into a real slog, which wouldn't have suited – he's the sort of horse that likes to come with one run. I think that will put him spot on, and you'll see the proper Bensalem when he goes back over fences at Cheltenham."
However Bensalem fares, it is good to know that we should see the real Alan King this time, as well.
Chris McGrath's Nap
Clear Praise (8.05 Kempton) Cheaply culled from top French stable but has a smart pedigree and has quickly proved a bargain, doing well to give his rivals a start off a steady pace round here last time, and better drawn today.
Mr Chippy (4.20 Ludlow) Looked a different horse switched to fences and raised in trip for his reappearance at Chepstow.
One to watch
Royal Tune (Guillaume Macaire) Should pay his way in more cross-Channel raids despite failing to get home over a longer trip at Ascot last Saturday.
Where the money's going
Aiteen Thirtythree is 10-1 from 12-1 with William Hill for the RSA Chase at Cheltenham next month, while Wishfull Thinking is 16-1 from 25-1.