CHELTENHAM FESTIVAL: King of the Castle goes in search of Cheltenham glory (From Swindon Advertiser)
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CHELTENHAM FESTIVAL: King of the Castle goes in search of Cheltenham glory
SINCE he moved to the yard in 2000, an expansion of the stables has allowed Alan King to train 120 horses and provide accommodation for some of his 40 staff.
A new gallops was put in about 10 years ago, and numerous horse-walkers and a hydro-bath undoubtedly help the horses run as well as they often do.
Except for the intentness with which he watches the strings come up the gallops and the slight nervous edge, it would be hard to tell from King’s demeanour that Cheltenham is fast approaching.
Beneath that cool exterior, so evident when he greets the horde of fans that have come for a pre-Cheltenham stable tour, is he looking forward to the four day spectacular as much as ever, or are nerves creeping in?
“You always look forward to it,” he said. “Of course, you’re a bit apprehensive, and no doubt the nerves will kick in, but it’s a very important part of our season.
“I will take between 12 and 15 horses there. I’d say we’ve got a decent team.”
That team does indeed feature some strong contenders for the championship races, but at the beginning of the year the picture was not quite so rosy. King was forced to shut his stables for a period after New Year, when a virus was found in some of the horses, which was leading to them performing poorly.
Rather than hampering their season, assistant trainer Oliver Wardle thinks the time off may have benefited the horses, who he thinks have come back even better.
“It might have been a blessing in disguise,” said Wardle to the stable tour visitors.
“If we were going to have a setback, then that was the time to have it. We wouldn’t have wanted it any closer to the Festival. It looks like we’ve come through it alright, thank God.”
So, which of his team does King rate most highly for the Festival?
Without a doubt the buzz horse around the yard is Valdez. From the looks of his morning exercise and his results to date, it doesn’t seem without reason that he occupies the stable apparently reserved for the best horse on the yard (it was formerly Katchit’s). The white-faced chestnut is unbeaten over fences this season, and is set to line up for the two-mile Arkle on the first day of the Festival.
“He’s won his three races this season. He’s going to have to improve again, but I’m hopeful we can,” said King.
“I would definitely like it to dry up for him as he is a horse who’s better on good-ish ground.
“We’ve been lucky enough to win the Arkle twice before, and I would love to win a third one.”
On the back of a recent win at Newbury, Smad Place goes to Cheltenham as one of the favourites for Wednesday’s RSA Chase. King has been reassured by the big grey’s response to the Festival atmosphere in recent years, and is hopeful that the consistent gelding can put in another strong performance.
“Newbury was his sort of warm-up,” he said.
“He ticks a lot of the boxes, and he has been placed at the last two Festivals, which is important. There are certain horses that show they can go and take the atmosphere in their stride.”
Another notable asset in his team is Grumeti, though he is entered in a stiff Champion Hurdle. King is not denying how stern the test will be, but concedes his options were limited.
“It is looking like a cracking race this year but there’s nowhere else to go. If I ran him in one of the handicaps he’d be top weight, so to try and give the best part of two stone away is difficult,” he admitted.
“So the owners are quite happy to let him take his chance, and have a day out. He’s a horse that’s probably going to go Novice chasing next season.
“We’re under no illusions of the task ahead of him but let’s have a crack at it.”
Raya Star, Medermit and Medinas are other exciting prospects, though King must decide between a difficult choice of races for each of them. Raya Star will either run in the Grand Annual Chase or the Arkle, and Wardle indicated that the long odds of 50-1 in the latter, which will be favoured if the ground is soft, was an insult to the talented eight-year-old. Medermit could head for the Gold Cup or Ryanair Chase, depending on what the owners would prefer. Since our meeting, King has decided Medinas will run in the World Hurdle, rather than the Coral Cup which he won last year at odds of 33-1. This leaves Meister Eckhart, who finished second in the race last year, as King’s only horse in the Coral Cup.
A combination of meticulous preparation and resolute attention to his horses has been a clear ingredient to King’s success, but his tip for aspiring trainers would be patience.
“Well, firstly you have to be in a fortunate position of having the right owners to get you the right horses,” he conceded.
“But once you’ve got them, I think patience is very important; especially with young horses I think it’s very easy to get carried away and do too much too soon, that’s something I think you learn with experience.
“I’m far more patient than I was a few years ago, especially with the youngsters.
“They tell me when they’re ready to run, I don’t tell them.”
When he isn’t racing or having the occasional Sunday off, King meets his main team each day at 6:15am, to discuss the morning exercise schedule. He will then take three of four separate groups up to the gallops, and oversee their training.
With the full-time lifestyle of a racehorse trainer, how does he find time to see his wife and two children?
“I’m lucky enough that I try and get finished in good time in the evenings,” he said. “And I tend never to answer the phone after 7pm, and no one rings me now anyway!
“So I see the family a fair bit. And unless it’s a particularly important runner or a big meeting I also try not to go Sunday racing.”
Just as King has struck a balance between family and his work, so too has he rectified the off-kilter yard he was experiencing at the end of last year.
However his horses fare at the Festival, and by all accounts they should put on a decent show, it is credit to King’s true professionalism that he has got them to a point where they can compete with the best jump horses about to descend on Cheltenham.
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