SUNDAY TIMES SPORT, 26 December 2021
Jumping is the game and in the King George VI Chase jumping is so often the key. It was a spring-heeled symphony of jumping that won it for Frodon last year and it was those famously aggressive leaps that were Desert Orchid’s most fearsome weapons. But the two horses’ preparations were very different.
For while Frodon and King George stablemate Clan Des Obeaux spent Monday morning spinning round the obstacles in Paul Nicholls’s specially designed circular jumping lane, Desert Orchid would hardly practise at all.
“Richard Dunwoody did come down to school him once at the start of one season,” David Elsworth, Desert Orchid’s trainer, said with wry amusement this week. “And by the time they jumped the last fence he was going so fast that there was no stopping him before he had gone up over the hill.”
Elsworth, who trained the champion three-year-old flat filly In The Groove in the same year as he saddled Desert Orchid to win the Irish Grand National and his fourth King George, finally ended the greatest dual purpose career in our racing history this week and operated on instinct.
“I am not a modest man although I like to give the impression I am,” he said with a chuckle on Tuesday. “Dessie had some falls because he was so bold. But he had this great athleticism and the way he jumped got the others into trouble. I would get him very fit but the jumping I would leave to him and the jockey.”
Paul Nicholls’s genius is of “the infinite capacity for taking pains” variety as 11 trainers championships and 12 King George VI Chases pays full testimony. Frodon and Clan Des Obeaux have shared the last three runnings but both of them would not stint on practice.
“I have always liked to do plenty of schooling,” he says. “When I was riding I remember going down to an old trainer and there were just three rough pallets stuck up in the field. Then you have got to take it to the races.
“Our young horses are schooled all the time and every runner still schools the week before it runs.”
Clan Des Obeaux has never fallen in 26 runs over obstacles and Frodon just an unlucky once in 41 but some horses still let themselves down however much they practise. Kauto Star won five King Georges for Paul Nicholls but a sudden lapse was always possible. He fell in his novice season, took a crumple in the 2006 Champion Chase, another dreadful crash in the 2010 Gold Cup and even took a fall in the Nicholls practice ring readying for the race next year.
“He could jump,” says Nicholls in admiring sympathy of the greatest of all his champions, “but he just got casual about it.”
A similar affliction is shared by Ireland’s Asterion Forlonge who was galloping over Allaho and Envoi Allen before slipping up at Punchestown last time. The seven-year-old may be no Kauto Star but he has talent enough to be tipped by the canny Rob Wright in The Times.
“He’s actually a good jumper,” says jockey Bryan Cooper, “but he just lacks concentration. He seems to forget to get his landing gear out. He schooled up over four fences last week and everything was perfect. If he can keep it together he certainly has the engine.”
While Cooper has to be positive the handsome grey’s method still makes it unlikely that he can cross today’s 18 fences without ground-losing error. Rhythm is always crucial at Kempton and last year Bryony Frost was allowed to get Frodon into a brilliantly balanced tempo and put her rivals under pressure at jump after jump. Such licence is unlikely to be granted this time.
“I don’t think Frodon will be allowed to have it his own way,” Nico De Boinville said resolutely after jumping Chantry House alongside Mister Fisher on Nicky Henderson’s undulating five fence schooling track on Thursday. “These are both nice horses and could be in the mix.”
De Boinville, understandably, won’t be drawn on tactics beyond saying, “It will be pretty frantic going to the first,” and neither Chantry House nor Mister Fisher are likely to exert as much pressure as Gold Cup winner Minella Indo and Frodon’s own team-mate Clan Des Obeaux.
One of Paul Nicholls’ greatest talents is the way he keeps sharpening the focus of his horses’ ability. He has already won two King Georges with Clan Des Obeaux. After the nine-year-old was eight lengths off Frodon last year the help of cheek pieces put the horse back into his best ever form. Convinced that Clan Des Obeaux can peak first time, the vibes from Ditcheat are that he is in awesome shape.
None of this will be lost on Rachael Blackmore who was five lengths adrift of Frodon when he and Minella Indo reappeared this season at Down Royal. Tactical nous is her greatest asset; the application of cheek pieces suggests that she will have a more aggressive Minella Indo beneath her today and Frost should be ready for company up front.
The one flaw is that a year ago Minella and Blackmore unaccountable capsized at Leopardstown. It’s his only blemish in 15 runs over obstacles and he schooled well at Henry De Bromhead in Wexford a week ago. But blemish it is and so if jumping’s the game, the vote must go to Clan Des Obeaux.