26 December 2004
A lot of eyes are on Azertyuiop but there are questions over his staying power over the extra mile.
The easy thing about the King George VI Chase is that we know that Azertyuiop, the reigning two-mile champion, is the fastest horse in the race. The problem is whether he will stay the Kempton’s three-mile trip. The answer lies in solving the riddle of the extra minutes and the missing months.
It normally take Azertyuiop just under four minutes to complete his two-mile chases, he did 3 min 54sec at Cheltenham; Moscow Flyer beat him at Sandown last time in 3-52; Edredon Bleu won last year’s King George in 5-55. There’s no way of telling him but Azertyuiop has to be ready for half as much again.
Trainer Paul Nicholls is as near to a horse-whisperer as his profession allows. But the missing months go back to Cheltenham last year after Azertyuiop had won the Arkle Trophy. As Azertyuiop stood in sweaty triumph Nicholls said “two miles is his trip, he does not want further and will not”. What has happened to change his mind?
The official line is that the horse is now stronger and more settled but, unfair though it may be to impale people on post-race quotes, the history of these matters often shows that the first reaction is the best one. What’s more, there is no public evidence that Azertyuiop is more settled in his races. At Sandown last time he was really `tanking’ with Ruby Walsh early on, just as he was at Cheltenham. His keenness is what makes him great.
The trick for Walsh is to harness it. So the really crucial moments are early on, to see how well he adapts to the slower, three-mile pace. In his favour there is Edredon Bleu in the race. After 44 races over fences the old hero is not going to change the front-running style which has seen 22 successes, most of them over two miles. First Gold (winner in 2001) also likes to be up in the van and Kicking King won’t be far away. The pace will be quick.
But Walsh will still be having his arms stretched. “Whoa boy, whoa boy,” is much more than a cliche phrase on The Archers. It will be the message Walsh will be sending out with every stride. The absolute key to this King George is whether Azertyuiop will listen to what he is told.
After the opening burst the second truly fascinating moment will be taking stock of the situation as the runners come past the stands behind Edredon Bleu at the end of the first circuit. There are a set of horses with queries on either their jumping or their fitness but by then we should have an idea of whether they look in good rhythm or not. Lord Sam has had problems with his jumping, as has Calling Brave. Neither Tiutchev (second, last year) nor the giant Kingscliff have run this season, while Therealbandit still needs to convince he can handle the real big time over fences, especially on this his first time galloping right-handed.
Plenty of questions and as the pressure builds they come faster. Kicking King is likely to be the first of the big shots to try and break the leader. Therealbandit’s style should see him close. Walsh is likely to be swinging off Azertyuiop along the inside and the horse he will be watching closest of all is his stable-mate Le Roi Miguel. Walsh will fear his own judgment of Solomon.
For his switch to Azertyuiop when the latter was confirmed a runner angered Le Roi Miguel’s owner, Andy Stewart, enough for all sorts of “he’ll never ride for me” fulmination to get reported from Stewart’s Caribbean holiday. But in Paul Carberry Le Roi Miguel must have just about the most talented substitute in the game and the genial Stewart will probably reflect over his Christmas rum punch that Walsh was placed in an impossible position. For while Ruby had indeed won three good races including this year’s Peterborough Chase on Le Roi Miguel, it was surely impossible to desert Azertyuiop on whom he has won seven, including both the Arkle and The Champion Chase at Cheltenham.
All this will count for nothing as they swing into the three-fence straight. I expect Le Roi Miguel and Therealbandit to be disputing it with Walsh still biding his time and Calling Brave running best of the others. Back in 1991 Jamie Osborne committed two-mile champion Remittance Man before the bend and failed to last home. Walsh will try and ease his way to the front before the last. If the juice is there he will cruise it.
It’s only an instinct but I don’t think it will be there. In greyhound racing they have an inelegant but accurate phrase about free-running dogs staying the distance – “you cannot do it both ends”. To me Azertyuiop looks a speedball. I think he will weaken and, granted, no repetition of his Sandown last-fence blunder, I believe it will be Calling Brave who will cut for victory on the run-in. You read it here first.