11 January 2004

The bubble burst. Hopes that the massive Kingscliff might develop into a real Gold Cup challenger to Best Mate were lost in the Haydock gloom when he found the concession of 18lb to the admirable, but far from mighty Arctic Jack by 13 lengths a task too great.

Kingscliff remains an individual as splendid as he is huge. This was the first defeat in his life from just five steeplechases and three point-to-points. He has proved an incredible bargain for owner Arnie Sendall and realised a lifetime ambition, not to mention a £100 on at 100-1, when winning the Foxhunters Chase at last year’s Cheltenham Festival. But a threat to Best Mate he is not.

Truth to tell, the stars never really seemed to be in Kingscliff’s corner yesterday. He settled in second place behind Arctic Jack on the second circuit, but even on the first there was a slight lack of zip about his movement and his jumping. He began to get in very close to his fences, two or three times he clouted them hard enough to give a moment’s worry.

Even before Horus capsized five fences out, Andrew Thornton’s wrists had been moving a touch uneasily on Kingscliff’s reins as Arctic Jack sailed merrily along with a good eight-length advantage. Going to the last turn, Thornton was shovelling on the coal to try to close the gap. Into the straight and the whip was out.

To be fair to the seven-year-old Kingscliff, this was the first time he had been asked such a serious professional question. For a while he looked awkward, almost resentful at the strain that his huge body was now having to shoulder.

Kingscliff’s connections have always said that they thought this year’s Gold Cup was an unlikely target, that the bubble would probably burst soon enough and then they would have a rethink about their horse’s future. That’s likely to be happening this morning. Bookies’ prices for the Gold Cup should be ignored.

It was one of those days when the mind had to be in at least three places at once and within minutes we were goggling at Azertyuiop’s gallant effort in defeat at Ascot. He, too, was giving away almost 1½ stone but to go down only by a neck to as talented a runner as Isio was a statement of his own ever-increasing excellence. Moscow Flyer may have trounced him at Sandown but the class and sharpness of this display makes Azertyuiop a real threat at Cheltenham.

A race later at Haydock, Rooster Booster put himself firmly back on track to defend his Champion Hurdle crown when Richard Johnson adopted much more aggressive tactics to put the Jonjo O’Neill pair, Hasty Prince and Specular, firmly in their place in the Red Square Vodka Champion Hurdle Trial. Hasty Prince was a contender until Rooster Booster powered away on the run-in and the Australian champion, Specular, seemed to be going best of all on the turn before weakening in the straight on this first northern hemisphere venture and his first race since the summer. But Rooster Booster is back. He will be a hard, hard act to better at Cheltenham.

One who might be in contention is Inglis Drever, who was hugely impressive at Warwick for the newly emerging Graham Wylie/Howard Johnson combination. “We will have to think about it,” said the trainer afterwards, while the owner just expressed himself thrilled to have a Cheltenham runner, even though one imagines it might be more likely to be in the Novices Hurdle.

So to the last scene of all in this strange and all-too-eventful afternoon – the featured Tote Classic Chase, the richest jump race yet run, almost four miles to travel, 22 fences to jump. At the 20th Southern Fort and Jurancon were joining in a duel which the former would gallantly win to land a double for the green and yellow Trevor Hemmings colours earlier carried by Arctic Jack at Haydock. But behind the pair there was only to be this one last jump for Behrajan.

The nine-year-old has been the most wonderful of servants to his enthusiastic owners since he won to their great surprise on this very course at the first time of asking. He had won 11 races and scored over fences at Ascot, Wetherby and Cheltenham. He ran in both last year’s Gold Cup and Grand National. But now he ploughed awkwardly into the fence, staggered out the other side and keeled over with a broken neck. It may have been a big day for racing. It was also a terrible one.

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