24 December 2006

Kauto Star will be the big draw at Kempton on Boxing Day but Monet’s Garden is the horse you would want to ride in one of the most perfectly set-up King George VI Chases in years. With ‘Monet’s’ there is no heavy hot-favourite expectation but real talent still unplumbed, safe jumping and supremely uncomplicated tactics. “I can’t hold him,” explained jockey Tony Dobbin with a smile.

At 34 the Downpatrick-born Dobbin is the oldest among the jockeys in the Kempton showdown, seven years senior to Kauto Star’s rider Ruby Walsh and two summers older than Timmy Murphy who will be on board the other big challenger Racing Demon. But there is no veteran feel when he talks of Monet’s Garden. This could be the horse he was born to ride.

There have been plenty enough already, most famously the 1997 Grand National winner Lord Gyllene and the dual King George winner One Man on whom Dobbin took the 1994 Hennessy Gold Cup and who, like his fellow grey Monet’s Garden, was trained up on the crags above Greystoke Castle, albeit in his case by the late Gordon Richards, father of 50-year-old Nicky who will be saddling up on Tuesday.

“I can’t really make comparisons with the past or with the other horses next week,” said Dobbin. “Kauto Star is obviously a brilliant animal, Racing Demon looks very promising and this will be the toughest lot that Monet’s Garden has ever faced. But he’s always felt like a good horse. He won his ‘Bumper’ for me first time out, I have ridden him in every one of his 15 races and even when we were breaking him in he would jump out of jail for me.”

The words have a heady warmth about them, but then they always do. These races, these horses are what jockeys live for. They justify all the cold mornings, empty stomachs and sore bones (Dobbin is currently recovering from a heavy thumping at Musselburgh on Wednesday). It’s a pleasure to succumb to the intoxication but looking ahead to Kempton we must remember the giddiness of the other two camps. Paul Nicholls and Ruby Walsh make no secret that they consider Kauto Star something extra special, while Henrietta Knight and Terry Biddlecombe believe that Racing Demon is not that far short of their beloved and late lamented Best Mate.

There are two sensible ways of picking your ways around these contrasting credos: to look at the cool, form-book assessments and to study the horses’ careers as a whole. If you do the first you wave Kauto Star into the distance, he has a highest Racing Post rating of 184 compared to Monet’s Garden’s 165 and Racing Demon’s 166. But look at the career development so far and both Racing Demon and particularly Monet’s Garden come in with a shout.

For while Kauto Star has shown the most obvious brilliance he is also by far the most precocious. Neither Racing Demon nor Monet’s Garden ran at all as three-year-olds. Over in his native France Kauto Star ran no fewer than six times at that age. Last season both Racing Demon and Monet’s Garden were in their novice stage over fences whilst Kauto Star was pitching at the two-mile chasing crown. Kauto Star may have looked devastating over two miles at Sandown and even more so over three at Haydock but the other two may still have more to show.

Sure neither of the challengers will match the favourite for sheer speed but over three miles they can pressurise him, and most of all pressurise his jumping. For if there is one ‘if’ about Kauto Star it has to be his jumping. In 15 runs over obstacles Monet’s Garden has never looked like falling. In 12 Racing Demon has once got rid of his jockey when ejecting poor Graham Lee like a spent cartridge first time out this season at Exeter. But in 18 races Kauto Star has been on the floor three times, most recently when capsizing after a total misjudgment at the third fence in the Champion Chase at Cheltenham in March.

In all the euphoria of his scintillating win in the Tingle Creek at Sandown last time it should not be forgotten that Kauto Star galloped slap into the second last that day. Walsh has as good a tuning for a horse’s take-off as any jockey who ever rode. The fact that Kauto Star could so misread him last time give the others a chink of light to aim at.

Which brings us back to the excitement of the day itself. Unless Ollie Magern is on one of his ultimate trail-blazing days, the grey Monet’s Garden will be taking them along in front in the manner of his stable companion One Man and of course of old Desert Orchid himself. Racing Demon will be tracking him on the inside (it has to be the inside because he is prone to jump across right-handed) and Kauto Star will be stalking the pair of them.

Down the back stretch for the last time Dobbin will wind up the tempo. “Monet’s is so wonderfully competitive,” the jockey said, “he really loves to work. I don’t know if I can beat them but I have always believed this is a very very good horse. The only time he has been beaten over fences was over two miles in the Arkle and three miles has always promised to be his best trip.”

Ah, here we go again. Fortunes have been lost heeding the eager words of excited pilots. But as Dobbin speaks you remember the grey horse’s promise throughout his career and the authority with which he held off France’s unbeaten hurdle star Mid Dancer last time at Carlisle when still way short of peak fitness. What will happen on Tuesday is a heavyweight showdown. Bar some disasters or a late mugging by Monkerhostin or the aptly named Exotic Dancer it should be a punch up with the big three. My own feeling is that Racing Demon just lacks a little and that Kauto Star could be found out by the grey bomber from Greystoke.

Best of all this heavyweight division has got more to come this season. For whoever gets through Tuesday still has Irish stars In Compliance and the reigning Gold Cup champion War of Attrition waiting for the true title fight at Cheltenham. Boxing Day and better, at Christmas a race fan cannot hope for more than that.

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