20 November 2005

Don’t ever say they only follow ball games in Lancashire. Ten miles from where Wigan were putting Arsenal to the test in the JJB Stadium and just up the road from the rugby league home of Warrington Wolves, Haydock had its own helicopters, traffic jams and championship contenders. And it had a giant called Kingscliff putting Gold Cup hero Kicking King to the sword.

The first running of the £85,000 Betfair Chase and with it the linked £1 million bonus if the winner goes on to complete a treble with the King George and the Gold Cup, gave this chilly bright afternoon a showdown feel of its own. All the main players had got through their warm-up races. No quarter should be asked, none given.

Ollie Magern had run Kingscliff ragged and put Keen Leader on the floor three weeks ago at Wetherby. He is as little, light and eager as a lady’s hack with the choke out. As the runners circled by the start, the steam was coming off him in readiness.

Beside him, Kingscliff towered as if he was another species, Beef Or Salmon strutted around with his stunted tail and oddball walk. Keen Leader stood tall and Kicking King yawed the reins away from jockey Barry Geraghty. A full cast of equine characters, a big act to play.

The moment the tapes flew up Ollie Magern set off as expected. He was quick and nimble-footed at his fences but, behind and beside him, all bar Beef Or Salmon were jumping with fluent ease. Two fences down the backstretch were frosted off so it was a strangely uneventful first circuit before they came squelching past us three minutes later. Kingscliff was up alongside Ollie Magern and jockey Robert Walford thought he was ready to roll. “I knew he really stayed and jumped,” the 25-year-old Yorkshireman said afterwards, “so I was keen to attack a bit, especially from the last turn.”

Keen Leader was also pressing the little trailblazer and right behind them Barry Geraghty was still a poised and confident figure on Kicking King. On the long now fenceless run to the final bend Ollie Magern weakened so Kingscliff and Keen Leader joined battle with all eyes now wondering just how much Geraghty had beneath him on the odds-on favourite.

It was a moment when you could not be sure either way. Was Kicking King’s long, low, loping stride just floundering a bit, or was that because Geraghty had yet to go to work? Over the third last and Keen Leader was struggling, if Kingscliff was to be taken the Gold Cup winner should now assert. Geraghty ran him hard at the second last and went for a big long leap, Kicking King took an extra stride. It was the first sign. This might be difficult.

At the last it was going to be tough. The two horses level but Kingscliff probably the better. On the run in and Kicking King had lost his Gold Cup zip. It’s a desperate run-in at Haydock and the final threat would come from the wet sail of Beef Or Salmon. It was the biggest crowd in 20 years and as Kingscliff stuck on by a clear length from an eased up Kicking King, they had an 8-1 winner to celebrate.

They also had a triumph of traditional National Hunt virtues. Kingscliff did not just start his life in the hunting and point-to-point field, he even went hunting (complete with scent trail, police and antis) on Wednesday. “He loves it,” said trainer Robert Alner, 62 on Monday, but lively enough to have been in the saddle last week. “We had plenty to jump and for him it’s like a party.”

Alner’s wife, Sally, is Kingscliff’s normal pilot and indeed was his trainer for his first two-race two-win point-to-point season. The enormous – the horse stands at almost 18 hands and weighs more than 550 kilos – apple of the Alners’ and owner Arnie Sendall’s eye is still only eight and assorted niggling problems have made yesterday only his ninth public appearance. “But we’re in the big league now,” Robert said. “We will go for the £1 million bonus and the King George being at Sandown will suit his stamina.”

On the face of things, Kicking King ran as if his own stamina was giving out. That his near hind shoe had twisted and punctured the foot certainly gives some excuse, but both Geraghty and trainer Tom Taafe felt that their horse had run a trifle flat. “I say that,” Taafe added, “because he did not pick up in the way he can do. Something may come to life when we get home. But it won’t be the first time that a horse has blown out with something to do and it won’t be the last.”

Kicking King now leaves us with two different images; the ruthless machine he looked at Cheltenham last spring and the slightly laboured runner on his two outings this autumn. Bookmakers are still unanimous that he is the one to back on what is likely to be faster ground next March, but yesterday was one to give a magnificent monster his due.

It was an afternoon to chill the fingers as well as warm the heart. And it was the day for Kingscliff to write his own chapter into what could be a glorious book of the season ahead.

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