6 November 2005
It was the morning after. At Tom Taaffe’s stables over in Ireland, there was a sad shake of the head about Best Mate’s Exeter demise and awed admiration for Henrietta Knight’s composure in crisis. But life goes on. And they have Kicking King.
At 42, Taaffe already has his own hold on history. He made it himself last March when Kicking King took the Gold Cup from an absent Best Mate at Cheltenham. But he was part of it from birth, the son of legendary Pat Taaffe, the man immortalised with Arkle. History can hang heavy. “When I started out as a jockey,” says a now 12½st Tom hustling round his yard, “I was either going to be Pat Taaffe’s son who couldn’t ride, or Pat Taaffe’s son who could. I tried hard to make it the latter.”
In a dozen years of dedication and self-denial, his pared-down 6ft frame forged a very considerable 300-winner career as a jockey. But it’s as a trainer and as a builder of his own dreams that Tom Taaffe is different – and realistic. “What happened to Best Mate was terrible,” he said, as he strides out so purposefully that you need to trot beside him, “but it happens. I lost a promising young horse last week at Fairyhouse. Broke his hind leg on the flat. These are the risks of the game.”
Few men face them – and the financial snares which surround them – more directly. “When I was 15,” he says, looking back to the time when Pat Taaffe trained Gold Cup winner Captain Christy only a couple of fields away near Straffan, “I remember cycling home from school and seeing a ‘For Sale’ sign up on the house. For all his fame, father was such a kind, humble man. People took advantage of him. I was not going to let it happen to me.”
So even during Tom’s riding days he was buying and selling young horses and, of the 60 head he now has at his fast developing yard, 90 per cent would have been bought by him as untried stock. Six years ago last week, Kicking King was just lot 543 at the Tattersalls NH Sale, a bay Old Vic yearling with something about the way he walked. The gavel fell at 21,000gns. Kicking King’s 11 victories and more than £600,000 in winnings are proof that Taaffe’s eye was right.
“He went through our system like the others,” says Tom looking at his formidable champion loosening up on the inner sand ring of his frying pan-shaped training track . “We give them time, but then I put them through my drills. If they are no good I just say ‘next’. As a three-year-old Kicking King passed with flying colours. By the time [current owner] Conor Clarkson came in, I knew we had a horse with talent.”
So much talent that each of the last three seasons have ended up with big time tilts at Cheltenham, second in the 2003 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, second in the 2004 Arkle and then the glory of his Gold Cup last March.
This term began with an odds-on defeat at Punchestown two weeks ago but the trainer is utterly unfazed. “I told everyone that the horse was short of fitness but needed a run,” he said. “You can’t wind him up too tight first time, but he will be spot on now.”
Kicking King is cantering by up the steepening wood-chip gallop which is “the frying pan handle” of the circular track lower down. His action is a touch longer and more reaching than the flowing stride which made Best Mate the most perfectly-formed chaser of them all. But there is no mistaking the power and aggression.
“He gets his hind legs under him,” says Tom, as Kicking King’s slab-muscled hindquarters recede up the hill. “He has become a tremendous machine. He will be ready for his run [The Betfair Chase] at Haydock in a fortnight. Then the King George and the Gold Cup. There is a million pound bonus – and you have to say it’s possible.”
At the top of the rise stands the house that Tom built. It is, to use the term exactly, ship-shape. It rides high and white on the wave of the hill looking out on the tracks and paddocks below. In it is a picture of Tom and Elaine back home after Gold Cup triumph. Kicking King is between them. On his back is the new Pat Taaffe born the day the horse won his first race in January, 2002. It is the symbol of steeple-chasing wheels going full circle. But back down in the stables you realise that the ambitions are on a widening gyre.
For at Goffs Sales in September, Tom and a new partner bought not jumping young stock but six beautifully-bred and expensive fillies, including the Danehill-sired 660,000 euros sales topper now called Leaving On A Jet Plane. The group now skitter, puppy-like around the sand in an early education canter. “The idea is to build a band of foundation mares for a stud,” says the trainer “If just one of them turns out decent, we will be on our way.”
Out in an adjoining paddock Kicking King is having a post-exercise roll and tail-in-the-hair canter. The morning sun is climbing high in the Kildare sky. Less than 24 hours from Best Mate’s closing hour here was the return of racing’s eternal addiction. It’s called hope.