Sport Horse Racing

Sunday 18 March 2018

Ian McClean: Wily King proves he Who Dares Wins

Smad Place crowns trainer's hat-trick on eventful Trials Day as Djakadam hits the deck

Smad Place clears the last for Richard Johnson en route to winning the Betbright Chase at Cheltenham yesterday Photo: PA
Smad Place clears the last for Richard Johnson en route to winning the Betbright Chase at Cheltenham yesterday Photo: PA

Ian McClean

If the purpose of Trials Day at Cheltenham is to whet the appetite for the main event back at HQ in six weeks, then yesterday's events at Prestbury Park fully lived up to its billing. The fact is especially true if your name happens to be Alan King.

The Barbury Castle trainer produced three winners on the card (with a further two at Doncaster) and if you thought jockeys were notoriously bad tipsters, spare a thought for anyone who took the advice from the trainer early on when asked for his best chance of the day. In recommending Who Dares Wins he selected just about the only horse from the yard that failed to trouble the judge, finishing out of money in the opener on the card

It is 16 years since Looks Like Trouble won the Betbright Chase on this card (called the Pillar Property in those days and now on its ninth individual sponsor) before doubling up in the Gold Cup proper. However, it still isn't certain whether yesterday's impressive winner Smad Place will even take up his entry in March's blue riband.

The Hennessy winner yesterday readily dispatched another Hennessy winner in Many Clouds after a protracted battle from the third last, eventually asserting to record a victory almost as comprehensive as at Newbury in November. The win was characterised by a return to the same front-running tactics that proved so effective in the Hennessy, yet were so mysteriously abandoned in the King George. There is little doubt that whatever Festival option he adopts between the Gold Cup or the Ryanair the previous day, we can expect to see the galloping grey in a prominent role from the start.

The trainer was naturally delighted. "It was a great exhibition of jumping. He keeps up a relentless gallop and he wouldn't have minded the ground," said King. "I was blown away in the Hennessy and slightly blown away again today - he does that to me, I'm thrilled."

King was intent on simply enjoying the moment when pressed on his Festival target responding "I think the Gold Cup this year could be exceptional. I don't want to answer that now. I might change my mind. He's in the Ryanair, he's in the Gold Cup. He'll run in one of them and I'm not going to be committed today."

The result instantly threw the Gold Cup market into a state of chassis, not simply owing to King's indecision, but also by the unceremonious departure of odds-on favourite Djakadam at the downhill fence on the far side before the race had begun to truly develop. That departure resulted in Djakadam being deposed as Gold Cup favourite - ironically by his connections' other major contender Vautour. It also resulted in the Betbright chairman Rich Ricci presenting the winners prize to Trish and Peter Andrews and not to himself.

The other major feature on a pulsating seven-race card, the Cleeve Hurdle, had a more predictable and satisfactory outcome for the form-book. Here, favourite Thistlecrack sauntered to victory while his main market rival Camping Ground failed to stay on his first attempt at three miles. In careering away from his rivals for a 12-length success, Colin Tizzard's eight-year-old was making it three-from-three in graded races this season. With opposition thinning on the ground in the stayers' division the gelding is now 13/8 best to take the St Patrick's Day feature. A glowing Colin Tizzard admitted afterwards: "He was brilliant today.

He powered up that hill against really top-class opposition. It's a World Hurdle qualifier and he's won it 12 lengths without coming off the bridle. At home he works like that and he does it on the track. Nothing can stay with him any more on the gallops at home."

If Thistlecrack was impressive, then Yanworth - another Alan King winner - was equally taking in capturing a very deep looking Neptune Investment Management Novice Hurdle. Barry Geraghty barely had to twitch on board the JP McManus chestnut as he tracked through to lead after the last. If King was thrilled by Smad Place, he was almost speechless with Yanworth's seven-length rout of a decent field that recorded a nine-length faster time from the last than the juvenile hurdle earlier on the card.

 "I don't know how good he is - he's never come off the bridle in four runs this season. I don't think I've trained anything like it. I'm sure he'll be a better horse in better ground. He's frightening in a good way - and he could be very special."

In a season that was in danger of becoming consumed entirely by one yard, it is sobering to note there are others still capable of a day in the sun. For the record, Willie Mullins sent four short-price runners to UK shores yesterday and emerged, for once, without a winner. The last word on the general obsession with the Festival should go to Welsh trainer Evan Williams whose Kings Odyssey impressively won the Timeform Novices' Handicap early on the Cheltenham card.

In keeping with the feverish spirit of Trials Day Williams was asked after the race about the Festival plans for his winner "It might be that our race at the Festival is gone. I've gotta train 12 months of the year, not for one week. It's ok for Willie Mullins and all them but I've gotta earn a living 12 months of the year, not try chasing them buggers around in the middle of March."

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