King bullish about Festival string
At the best of times, it can be hard enough to find the lane that climbs up to the stables at Barbury Castle.
On a morning when the old hangars and airfield fences loom in the fog, it feels as though nature itself is conspiring in the sequestration of one of the strongest Cheltenham teams in Britain. Those who eventually obtain his lair, however, find Alan King providing all the illumination necessary.
With the Festival imminent, King might pardonably confine himself to platitudes about growing tension and diminishing expectation. Instead, King volunteered an unequivocal insight -- not so much on the relative merits of his two Triumph Hurdle candidates, Grumeti and Balder Succes, as on the parity of another juvenile in his care.
For while that pair contest a championship race off level weights, Vendor has just 10st 4lbs in the Fred Winter Handicap Hurdle on Wednesday.
The French import was allotted a rating of 122 after his debut for the stable at Newbury. "He just missed the last, landing awkwardly, and did well to pick the other horse up," he said. "But for that, I don't think he'd have come off the bridle. I couldn't believe the mark the handicapper came up with, so we just thought we'd look after it. He has gone up to 129 since, just standing in his stable -- but I'd be very disappointed if he's not a whole lot better than that."
Ideally, King would have liked to harden Vendor with another run. "But you can't show your hand too much," he said. "He hasn't run on good ground as yet, but his action suggests he might even improve for it. I expect something will come along and ruin everything. But whatever happens at the Festival, I've no doubt he's a high-class horse in the making -- every bit as good as Grumeti or Balder Succes."
Clearly, King does not intend that as faint praise for two horses "right up there with the best" of those who have compiled his excellent record with juveniles. He is glad that Wayne Hutchinson -- an able deputy during his stable jockey's absence through injury -- is guaranteed a good mount on whichever Robert 'Choc' Thornton ultimately rejects. Unfortunately Grumeti was lame earlier this week, but King was yesterday "much happier" with the horse.
King, meanwhile, continues to wrestle with a dilemma over Medermit. "Every day I wake up I have a different idea of what we should be doing," he said. "If it went soft he'd go for the Ryanair, but that doesn't seem likely. I'm sure he'll stay three miles, but whether he would get three and a quarter in the Gold Cup is another matter."
The decision gains extra gravity from a relative lack of ammunition in the biggest races of the week -- a situation certain to be redressed in years to come, judging from the depth among his novices. Apart from the juveniles, he has Montbazon and Batonnier over hurdles and Walkon and Invictus over fences. He also has strong contenders in the handicaps, not least Hold On Julio in the JLT Speciality Chase. Overall the 22 entries represent a big turnaround after a few relatively quiet seasons.
"It just makes you hungry," King reflected. "We got a few out and went to find fresh blood. And we've had more come through the ranks this season than expected. This is the best bunch of young horses we've had here in a long time." (© Independent News Service)