We’ve just a couple of weeks to go before the King George VI Chase, and I thought I’d take a nostalgic look back at some of the equine giants that added their names to a stunning roll of honour.
First run in 1937, it was 10 years later and just after the war that the King George was established as a Boxing Day feature. The Gold Cup at Cheltenham is the pinnacle for staying chasers, though there’s no doubting that this unique Kempton test of speed and stamina has resulted in exceptional performances from racing goliaths.
Pendil was one such beast, capable of slick jumping at a relentless gallop and then accelerating in the latter stages of the race to pull clear of the opposition. Fred Winter’s classy chaser took the race in 1972 and 73. On both occasions he comfortably defeated The Dikler, himself the winner in 1971. When the pair met in the Gold Cup of 73, Pendil looked sure to win again as he swept to the front two from home. But it was The Dikler that found that famous hill to his liking, and in a dramatic finish got his nose in front as the post loomed.
Many heroes of the King George have failed the Cheltenham stamina test. One Man was another who excelled around Kempton, and indeed at Sandown (race switched in 1995 due to weather), when winning the Christmas showpiece in 1995 and 96. Ridden by one of the greats in Richard Dunwoody, this wonderful grey owned by John Hales, was often given a bold ride, jumping spectacularly at the head of affairs.
That was certainly the case in 1995 at Sandown when Dunwoody sent him to the front on the final circuit, and the grey duly galloped and jumped the field into submission. The race was never in doubt as the eight-year-old hit the line 14 lengths clear. He was no less impressive a year later when sweeping past Mr Mulligan at the third-last, before bold leaps at the final two sealed victory. Able to win a Hennessy in 1994, he simply couldn’t see-out the trip in the Cheltenham Gold Cup. He did however return to Cheltenham in 1998 and famously captured the Champion Chase. Spring-heeled throughout, it was a stunning success.
It could be argued that Kauto Star was never at his best in the Gold Cup at Cheltenham, despite winning it twice. That certainly couldn’t be said of Kempton and the King George, where he was utterly dominant. This outstanding racehorse possessed that perfect blend of stamina and speed. Good enough to win a pair of Tingle Creek’s alongside those two Gold Cup’s, he captured the King George on five occasions, with his final success at the age of 11.
Only Dessie (Desert Orchid) has come close with four victories. He also managed to capture the Gold Cup, when in his first attempt in 1989 he bravely slogged his way through the mud to defeat Yahoo. He also managed to win the Irish National despite giving away lumps of weight. Effective at any trip, Dessie was another equine phenomenon.
Multiple winners are a common feature of the King George. Mandarin, Silver Buck, Wayward Lad, The Fellow, See More Business, Long Run and Silviniaco Conti have all cracked the Kempton showpiece on more than one occasion.
The Irish have also landed the spoils, with one father and son combo particularly enjoying the trips across the Irish Sea. Pat Taaffe trained the relentless galloper Captain Christy, who romped to victory in 1974 and 75. His first success came at the expense of the top-class Pendil, whilst a year later he beat Bula by half the track (slight exaggeration). He also captured the Gold Cup in 74, thrashing The Dikler by five lengths.
In 2004 and 2005 it was Taaffe ‘the younger’, son Tom, who trained Kicking King to complete a thrilling double of King George victories (one at Sandown). And like his father before, he guided the dynamic chaser to victory in the Gold Cup, also winning by five lengths. Kicking King’s career was curtailed by injury, and that was a crying shame as he was still only a seven-year-old when landing his second King George and that Gold Cup.
In a couple of weeks Thistlecrack will look to become yet another multiple winner of Kempton’s Christmas Cracker. Other talented staying chasers are set to take up the challenge, in the hope of adding their names to a dazzling roll of honour.