One of the nicest trainers in the game is Alan King, who enjoyed another big day in the limelight, courtesy of Smad Place’s Hennessy Gold Cup win at Newbury last Saturday. King is an intriguing chap and not so very long ago was banging in massive winners in feature races at the Cheltenham Festival in consecutive years, courtesy of My Way De Solzen (2006), Voy Por Ustedes (2007) and Katchit (2008).
When Oh Crick won the Grand Annual the following year, there was little to suggest that King wouldn’t be at training’s top table for a long time to come. Then things began to tail off: the relentless rise of Paul Nicholls, coupled with the resurgence of Nicky Henderson and emergence of many talented young trainers, combined to edge the column inches devoted to King out of the frame.
When Uxizandre landed a bit of an upset in last season’s Ryanair Chase, it was a welcome reminder that King could still deliver on the biggest of days. He is thinking man, a considered man and an utterly engaging man on the TV. When he answers questions, he does so with a reflection just on the right side of being earnest, but his enthusiasm for the National Hunt game sometimes bursts through, just as it did at Newbury on Saturday.
Smad Place (pictured below) is a terrific horse, and what a spectacle he gave us at the Hennessy Gold Cup, galloping them all into the ground, from the front, in a manner reminiscent of some wonderful greys from the 1990s. It’s a shame we won’t see him in the King George on Boxing Day but he’ll be back again and the real King — Alan — will be centre stage again, just as he ought to be.
The relentless, thrilling timetable of big Saturday races moves to Sandown this weekend with the Tingle Creek. If the Charlie Hall or the Cheltenham Open meeting is, for many, the start of the National Hunt season, the Tingle Creek is the start of Christmas proper.
Perhaps it’s the arrival of December or the smell of mulled wine that circulates on the Esher track, but I will always associate the Tingle Creek with a very special time in the calendar. It was a decade or so ago that we were treated to one of the greatest non-Festival races of our era when Moscow Flyer, Azertyuiop and Well Chief battled it out in a thrilling renewal.
This weekend, the current two-mile sensation Un De Sceaux makes his reappearance and is odds-on to enhance his flawless reputation. In Vibrato Valtat he faces a genuine challenger, fresh from his Haldon Gold Cup win and trained by the Tingle Creek maestro, Paul Nicholls, who will be after a scarcely believable 10th win in the race.
Watching these two, and (fingers crossed) the likes of Mr Mole, Simonsig and Sire De Grugy jumping the railway fences down the back is one of those special Winter treats that help us to set the alarm early on a weekend and head to Surrey whatever the weather. For me it’s as good as it gets this side of the Festival.
On Monday next week, the great, the good, the not so good and I will head to the Royal Lancaster hotel to honour the horserace writers and photographers who win the annual gongs for excelling in their field. It’s often fun, always boozy, goes on far too long and sometimes ends up with tanked-up friends falling out with each other as they fall into the street.
Earlier today, I got a note off Andy Stephens, who has just left The Times newspaper. Andy is a victim of the dreaded “restructures” that are sweeping across journalism. He’s hopeful of returning to the industry but it has put a dampener on my enthusiasm for Monday’s frolics. I’m not pretending I have any solutions to the malaise but will take a moment on Monday, amidst the celebrations, to remember those whose talents deserve to be showcased to wider audiences.
So in the end Coneygree didn’t run and the big race favourite, Saphir Du Rheu, failed to justify the hype. I was a little surprised by Paul Nicholls’ relative despondency in the paper on Sunday about poor old Saphir Du Rheu. For me, he lost nothing whatsoever in defeat. He clattered a fence out the back which put paid to any hopes of winning but that aside I thought he stayed on well and galloped properly. Keep the faith.