Monday 19 March 2018

Hindsight provides perfect vision

LIFE'S greatest paradox is that we live it going forward, but we understand it better looking backwards. Whatever we thought about things before the glut of Christmas racing, we are a lot wiser as we reflect on it now.

1 It's anything but an easy three miles at Kempton

If you repeat something often enough it will eventually pass as truth. Right up to the 11th hour of the King George even the cognoscenti were trotting out that old misguided mantra about Kempton being an easy three.

In a piece of footage to camera at Ditcheat outside the stall of Master Minded, asked about the stamina issue concerning the yard's second string, George Brown blinded us with the well-worn truth, "If he's going to get three miles anywhere he'll get it at Kempton".

The mantra had a particular resonance in the King George's 2011 edition as the three serious challengers to proven previous winners Kauto Star and Long Run all had one thing in common -- they were attempting three miles for the first time in their career. Yet combining their SPs meant that the distance-dubious trio of Master Minded, Captain Chris and Somersby were taking out around 35 per cent of the market.

The fact that Kempton is a flat, tight circuit, and that the King George is run in a time approximately 25 seconds faster than the Cheltenham Gold Cup, makes the logic seductive. It ignores the fact that the pace of the King George is crucifying from beginning to end. And that the fences come upon you in disruptively rapid succession.

Kauto Star, which employed forcing tactics to such good effect at Haydock in the Betfair Chase, was always going to exploit any stamina weakness in his foes last Monday. And so it was that Master Minded was spent even before his career-threatening injury, Somersby flattered before flattening out on the home turn, and Captain Chris just plugged on at one pace to finish third behind the pair which already had the stamina in the can.

The eerie provenance of Kempton's three-mile fallacy is even more inexplicable when you digest the following statistic: How many horses have won the King George (since its inception in 1937) on their first attempt at three miles? The answer is (still) none.

2 It's never over till it's over

When Kauto Star struggled home a belaboured third in last year's King George, it seemed the game was up for one of the greatest steeplechasers of our times. It appeared the elusive dream of an historic fifth King George had definitively disappeared for all time.

A flicker of the old ability reappeared in the Gold Cup. But even there -- having flattered briefly at the third-last -- he was all out to hang on for third. It was hard to know then which ignominy was worse, relinquishing your crown to young pretender Long Run or being beaten by your same-aged next door neighbour, Denman.

Despite the irrefutable signs of decline, a weak-looking Grade One at Punchestown seemed too good an opportunity to miss. Kauto's total miscue in Co Kildare -- the first time in his extended UK career that he had finished out of the frame when he remained upright -- led to a multitude of calls for his retirement. Mercifully, none was heeded.

'They never come back' is just one of the many racing aphorisms Kauto has managed to boldly defy. In the Betfair Chase at Haydock connections travelled as prepared to retire him as they were to fete him. Victory there led to the inevitable reignition of the King George dream. Last Monday it was apparent from the rise of the starter's tape that Kauto Star was sweet. Much the same as the opposite was apparent from a very early stage in the race under AP McCoy last year.

Idle comparison with Arkle was inevitably trotted out after Monday's epic win, but what distinguishes Kauto from any steeplechaser in modern times was best summarised by Ruby Walsh, longevity. Add to that consistency. Here is a horse that has won Grade One races in eight consecutive seasons. He won his first chase in England before Long Run was even born. The king is dead, long live the king.

3Trainers are human too

Racehorse trainers, I have always felt, would make great actors. Even when they suffer reversal and disappointment, a frequent and recurrent ingredient in the horseracing diet, they always seem inordinately adept at putting on a brave face.

Their verbal and non-verbal faculties seem to spontaneously invent a wholly believable framework to camouflage their true feelings and disposition. Much the same as an actor's talent. Think John Gosden after the QEII at Ascot. Indeed it is probably that very frequency and consistency of disappointment so endemic in their trade that enables the trainer to front up with a mask of fortitude in even the most distressing circumstances.

In a moment of weakness Donald McCain allowed the mask to slip after Peddlers Cross' eclipse in the Wayward Lad Novices' Chase at Kempton on Tuesday. He was devastated. Incredulous. And it showed. The mismatch between his core belief and the reality of what he had just witnessed in the previous four minutes around Kempton meant he just couldn't keep a lid on his emotions.

The horse that he -- and many more -- believed was invincible had just been beaten. Not just beaten, completely outgunned to the tune of 16 lengths. "The trouble when you have one as good as him is you think they can do everything," he said.

His kneejerk response under the spotlight of the TV camera was to rationalise that his forté was really stamina, not speed. After all, didn't he win the Neptune (not the Supreme) at Cheltenham in his novice year? The typical search to rationalise followed a learning experience ("We've learnt plenty and he has"); the wrong race ("it may be time to step up in trip"). Indeed the McCain tone suggested an abandonment of the Arkle plan altogether.

However, recovery from the emotional shelling has since been complete. The trainer is convinced his horse wasn't at his best on the day. He was uncharacteristically "subdued" afterwards. A left-hand track policy will be maintained (had never run right-handed before Kempton) and the Arkle is still very much on the agenda. Horses -- and trainers, even -- can be forgiven the occasional blip.

4Grands Crus is the real vintage

It's certainly been the season for high-class young hurdlers transferring their attention to fences. Peddlers Cross may have had his bubble burst, but the previous day at Sunbury Park witnessed popping bubbles of a different kind after Grands Crus's annihilation of a decent field in the Feltham.

On the face of it, it is nothing less than one might expect from a horse rated a lofty 167 over hurdles. However, the David Pipe standard-bearer has now stitched together three successive victories in a short period, each one building on the other. He has only made one semblance of a mistake (at Cheltenham's open ditch first time out) and he is clocking up some valuable experience as he goes. His Feltham victory, in a time three seconds faster than Kauto Star in the King George, was his most exhilarating yet.

Moreover, his accomplishments thus far have been achieved on ground that really isn't soft enough for the rotavator-style gallop of this taking French-bred six-year-old. The two horses he stuffed in the Feltham are about the best the UK has to offer and whilst Gigginstown in particular over here might have something yet to say on the matter, it appears at this stage as if Grands Crus will take some stopping in the RSA come March.

However, it does not reckon with the tantalising prospect of the grey opting for a date with the big boys in the Gold Cup instead, a race for which he is already a single-figure price in some places. The owner is favouring the Gold Cup at present although the trainer is typically reticent. With the Gold Cup lacking depth this year, the temptation might ultimately prove just too much.

5 You need the right horse for the right race

Most people would have described Synchronised as a 'speculative entry' when he appeared amongst the forfeits for the Lexus Chase. The common assumption was that the Welsh National the day before was the race for him with his bottomless stamina and his love of bottomless ground.

Richard Lee, trainer of Le Beau Bai, only had one race ever in mind for his horse. "Chepstow is a slow track and we've got a lot of slow horses," was his summary after his eight-year-old's victory.

It was a long time to wait for connections, however, as their horse could finish only third in 2009 when 4/1 favourite. He should have made up for it last year except Lee's wife Carol forgot to make the entry before the deadline. "It was a monumental blow and I couldn't believe I'd done it," she said.

However, it was a case of forgive and forget in the enclosure afterwards and it transpired that Synchronised side-stepping the race wasn't quite the act of pure altruism it might have appeared at the time.

Sunday Indo Sport

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