King George VI 2023

THE TIMES

27th December 2023

You could not make it up. The King George VI Chase has seen all sorts of drama but never anything quite as eventful or inspirational as Hewick’s victory this Boxing Day.

There was excitement right from the start, or rather before it with “would he, won’t he” around Shishkin being settled with only slight reluctance as Nico De Boinville sent him off alongside the rail and, much to most watchers’ surprise, soon right up close to the leader Frodon.

It was noticeable that De Boinville was constantly urging to make sure Shishkin remained interested and the former 2mile star repaid him with a series of magnificent leaps even a match for the ever-excellent Frodon.

Allaho and Bravemansgame cruised behind  him with the usual trail-blazing The Real Whacker in fifth and little Hewick already struggling so badly that Gavin Sheehan said afterwards “if it hadn’t been the King George, I would have pulled him up.”

The back straight at Kempton with good horses winging is a great spectacle as much for what it promises as for what It is.. Up front Frodon and Shishkin flew fence after fence with Allaho and Bravemansgame moving ominously behind them, and Hewick a vain struggler 10 lengths adrift. The big moves were about to come.

Frodon, predictably, was the first to weaken, his glories now history. Shishkin led round the turn but De Boinville was the busiest and the eyes strained to see which of Allaho or Bravemansgame would have the power.

The pace had quickened ferociously to give a sub 13 second furlong on the turn. Another great jump by Shishkin at the third last had kept his pursuers on the stretch so that at the next the errant starter was set for a great redemption.

With a perfect leap Shishkin landed a full length clear of his now toiling rivals but in the next stride after landing his right foreleg hit his left and the consequent violent stumble unshipped the normally prehensile De Boinville. Both Allaho and Bravemansgame lost momenetum in the melee but going to the last the race was clearly between them. Or was it?

Because coming up the outside were the green silks of Sheehan on Hewick, no longer a case of hopeless industry but a dervish with a little dream-destroyer beneath him. Allaho and Bravemansgame came away from the fence in front but they were staggering. Hewick skipped over five lengths behind them but he was the only one galloping. He cut past in the last 100 metres to have one and half lengths over Bravemansgame at the line.

It was a drama to restore the faith that nothing is impossible. De Boinville and Shishkin live to fight another day. “I am very proud of him,” said he rider, adding wryly, “racing can be cruel but wonderful at the same time.” Wonderful in practically every way for Hewick’s trainer, the giant former cattle dealer John “Shark” Hanlon who bought Hewick for £800  as a 2yo (Shishkin cost £170,000 as a 4yo) and has now won big races with him in England, Ireland and America.

“I honestly thought the game was up but he has such heart,” said his trainer nicknamed from his monster size in the Kilkenny U-14s hurling team and who is a welcome dose of uninhibited exuberance in our ever more restricted world. He and his team spent the night in the stable staff lodgings and at the presentation he seized the champagne and sprayed it Formula I style with a great roar “we will see you at Cheltenham”

It had already been a day to sup full of wonder. Both the French horse Il Est Francais performance in the Kauto Star Novices Chase and Constiution Hill’s devastating display in the Christmas Hurdle were individual sights to take top-flight in any memory.

Il Est Francais had never run over British obstacles but he just took the breath away. I can’t remember ever being as taken with an opening display by a chaser except perhaps by that of Arkle first time at Cheltenham ,but that was in November 1962.

The French horse did make one mistake down the far side but corrected it with a quite freakish leap at the next. Hermes Allen was a good hurdler and made a hugely promising start over fences but Il Est Francais toyed with him as part of Harry Cobden and Paul Nicholls day of going through the card – second in every race.

Could Constitution follow that. Of course he could. Rubaud (another Cobden-Nicholls runner) is a good horse and at the second last he tried to make a race of it. Then De Boinville asked and Constitution answered. Eight races unbeaten, the last seven at Grade 1, watching him is like following a top heavyweight without the worry of concussing the opponent. It’s a knock-out every time. Rubuad was officially beaten 9 lengths. It could have been 90.

After those two truly amazing performances,  it seemed the King George  VI was heading for an ante-climax, unless. Unless something astonishing happened. Then it did.

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