4 January 2004
Colossal chaser Kingscliff is being primed for a tilt at Cheltenham’s big prize on a farm in deepest Dorset
From deepest Dorset the latest challenger comes. Trainer’s wife Sally Alner gallops Kingscliff up Okeford Hill just west of Blandford Forum and you get a fine impression of speed and power. But most of all you gasp, “just look at the size of him.”
For Kingscliff is a phenomenon. At 17 hands 2½ inches (5ft 10½ in) at his shoulder, and 605 kilos (more than half a ton) on the weighbridge, he will probably be the tallest and heaviest horse ever to face the Gold Cup starter. That is if he gets through next Saturday’s test at Haydock.
For in racing terms Kingscliff is a beginner. The seven-year-old has run just four times under National Hunt rules, plus three in point-to-points, and is still rated at least a stone behind champion Best Mate, who re-asserted his rights so emphatically last week. But Kingscliff is still unbeaten and climaxed last season by winning the Foxhunter Chase over the Gold Cup course at Cheltenham. Even someone as steeped in horse and country lore as Sally Alner can’t stop herself from dreaming.
“He’s so beautifully balanced,” she said after her huge partner had led husband Robert’s string up the slope with the green spangled vale emerging beneath them in the morning light. “He moves off so easily on either leg, he never hangs or yaws on you. But best of all he has this lovely temperament. He never shies wherever I take him. I stopped to chat to someone in the village the other day and a cat jumped straight on to his back, sat there for a bit and then jumped off. Old `Clifford’ never moved.”
Seen like that, Sally Alner and Kingscliff can be taken as merely a 56-year-old farmer’s wife out on a favourite hunter. The fact that Robert was a third generation dairyman before finally giving up the cows five years ago, and that he himself rode Kingscliff on Christmas Eve when the Portman Hunt met at the Alners’ Lockett’s Farm, should also not cloud the astonishing achievement in getting so giant a horse into championship contention.
Even Mill House, the 1963 Gold Cup winner whose overthrow by Arkle has its 40th anniversary in March, was only 17 hands high. So too Crisp, the superstar Australian who led Red Rum everywhere but on the line when conceding over a stone and a half at Aintree in 1973. French Holly, the best staying novice of 1998 and third to Istabraq in the 1999 Champion Hurdle before breaking his neck in a schooling accident, was actually 18 hands but he was something of a gangly, Flat-race bred freak from America. The brutal truth is that horses as big as Kingscliff normally go wrong in the wind or the legs or both.
That’s what owner Arnie Seddon thought in County Galway four years ago when his friend Martin Cullinane showed him the huge raw three-year-old which had originally been bred in Ulster by farrier Ian Gault. “I told Martin I would be needing a sharp knife to give him a wind operation,” said the 71-year-old retired Somerset engineer. “But then Martin put him in the sand school and although the horse was all gawky and unfurnished he went round there like a pony. I only paid peanuts but I had to have him.”
Arnie’s family have been at North Petherton, near Bridgwater, since the 1500s. He played and refereed for the rugby club after whose post-dinner drinking den Kingscliff is named. He always takes his hobbies seriously. He has won races with pigeons and greyhounds, and was the West of England Chrysanthemum Champion. But his real passion is point-to-pointing. That’s where Kingscliff was headed and, as ever, Arnie did it his way.
“Rugby or horses,” he says in his deep cider accent, “I believe balance is everything. So before he went to the Alners, he had 11 weeks with Tim Collins, whose wife is a dressage international. Same again this year. What I give the trainer is not a fit horse, but a well muscled and balanced one.”
At Lockett’s Farm they soon realised there was talent to burn and offers from other eager owners came flooding in. But Arnie had one ambition. Not the Gold Cup but the Foxhunter at Cheltenham. After Kingscliff had duly hacked up in a couple of local point-to-points in the spring of 2002, the owner got 100-1 from William Hill’s for the 2003 Foxhunter Chase. Last March’s triumph should have been fulfilment enough. But then the horse reappeared at Ascot two months ago, broke a rein after three fences, but still took jockey Andrew Thornton round bridle-less to successfully start a dramatic journey which might even end with a tilt at Best Mate for the title.
In the same Ascot race in 1997 Robert Alner saddled Cool Dawn, who subsequently improved a full two stone to land Gold Cup glory under the same pilot. “Of course there’s a lot of hype,” says the 60-year-old former point-to-point champion with the farmer’s equanimity which will never leave him. “And the horse will have to go up at least another level because Best Mate is a true champion. But we don’t feel under any pressure. Kingscliff can only attain as much as his ability delivers. We cannot make him better. But he’s a lovely animal, he’s made the odd mistake with his jumping but that is just inexperience. Andrew Thornton says he’s like a Rolls Royce, he does everything so smoothly. That is how he got away with the broken rein at Ascot.”
The eye goes back to the huge horse with the kind, surprisingly elegant head and the massive almost ungainly quarters which swing so easily behind a slightly “roach” (high-ridged) back.
“He looks so heavy,” says Robert, “but if you walk him across the yard you can hardly hear his hooves on the concrete. He may be a giant but he’s got ballet dancer’s feet.”