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Unscripted drama for the King George

TIMES SPORT 27.12.19

Pressure is the word. In racing it rarely comes more intense than when the King George VI Chase runners wing the back straight fences up towards the turn. That’s where we thought Cyrname would confirm himself as the world’s best chaser. Instead it was his stable mate, Clan Des Obeaux, who moved upsides going the easier to win the race as he did last year and hand a record 11th success to trainer Paul Nicholls.

Unscripted drama is the very essence of sport. This was not unscripted, we just got the stories in the wrong order. We had thought that Cyrname and jockey Harry Cobden would repeat the awesome performance that battered Altior at Ascot a month ago. Instead we got the horse he won on last year coming to the peak at the right time and bringing a sense of redemption to jockey Sam Twiston Davies. For he left Paul Nicholls yard last season to make room for his talented young rival and yet it was now him who was on the rostrum being dowsed with champagne by ebullient part owner Jed Mason who shares the horse with Sir Alex Ferguson and Paul Nicholls’ landlord Paul Barber

But that was all post-race talk. The beauty is in the uncertainty which six minutes, three miles and 18 fences are going to test, and even with only five runners (2016 winner Thistlecrack was a late defector with a poisoned foot) this seemed as handsomely poised a race as one could wish for.  

There was a slight surprise at the start when the big outsider Aso rushed to the front with Cyrname settling almost tamely in second. When Aso made a mistake at the fourth allowing Cyrname to join him on the inside we imagined we were getting a repeat of the super display at Ascot. A mighty leap by Cyrname at the first open ditch on the second circuit seemed to confirm it, but perhaps there was something slightly awkward about the tilt of the big horse’s head not to mention the ease with which Clan Des Obeaux and indeed the Irish challenger Footpad were moving behind him.

For a moment the yellow colours of Robbie Power on Lostintranslation moved up to threaten, but another of what had been a series of jumping errors cooked his goose, and he was pulled up soon after the leaders swept round the final turn. With the gallop now full on, Footpad’s suspect stamina leaked him out of things and the race was clearly between the two stablemates from Paul Nicholl’s fabled winner factory on that cheese farm in Somerset.

It had been a rotten afternoon for Harry Cobden; Second in the first race, a heavy faller in the third and pulled up in the Christmas Hurdle behind the brilliant winner Epatante. But there was nothing wrong with the confidence with which he drove the mighty Cyrname towards those last three fences. The trouble was that Twiston Davies and Clan Des Obeaux were exuding the stuff alongside him.

At the third last, Cyrname still held his rival but at the next, the big blow was struck. Clan Des Obeaux lifted off still spring-heeled and ready while Cyrname landed leaden footed and the race was effectively over. Twiston Davies drove triumphantly down, in and over the last and swept away to finish 21 lengths clear of his now embattled rival who held off Footpad to be second with Aso pottering in to collect a neat £13k for being fourth.

It was a masterly training performance by Paul Nicholls with a horse who is joint owned by Sir Alex Ferguson and Paul’s landlord Paul Barber in whose white and green silks he ran. “I knew the more it rained today the more it would suit Clan,” Nicholls said afterwards. “He's stronger and better than he was last year. He's only seven so he's entitled to have improved and the key is to have him nice and fresh like he was today."

"I don't think Cyrname had his normal zest, he just ran a bit flat. Harry [Cobden] had to niggle him a couple of times and he may not have got over his run the other day, he may just have had an off day, but who knows. He didn't quite have his normal zest but he's still run well and finished second."

The word peak has a meaning. Cyrname clearly peaked at Ascot, Clan Des Obeaux was short of a peak on his comeback seven weeks ago and hit new heights yesterday. So too did Twiston Davies for whom this even betters the Champion Chase he won on Dodging Bullets four seasons back. “I was much younger then and have been through the mill a bit since,” he said walking back after the last race with his muddied face still radiant from the memories of the previous hour. “Clan Des Obeaux was always going so easily and I could sense from early on that Harry was not completely comfortable. And when I asked my guy he really gave. I am so lucky to ride these horses.”

Lucky in some ways but very much not in others. Sam set himself new challenges this season and the chance to ride Clan Des Obeaux at Kempton was but the latest and greatest fulfilment. He had to prove he could handle the pressure that only a King George can give.  He came through triumphantly. Pressure? Yes, that’s the point of it.