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Tom Symonds’ diary: Christmas means Downton and Kauto

Horse racing’s popularity was certainly in evidence over the Christmas period. I spent Christmas Day with the other five immediate members of my family, and was treated to a sumptuous feast created by my other three siblings.
Matthew and Mary seemed to upstage the stable-bound Mary and Joseph as Julian Fellowes continued to captivate audiences with Downton Abbey.

While true love was resurging on the screen, a certain resurgent Star shone brightly at 3.10pm on Boxing Day. On the hallowed Kempton turf Kauto Star achieved something that will be forever inscribed into horse racing’s most sacred annals. By regaining his King George crown he not only drew level at two apiece in skirmishes with Long Run, but also once again staked his claim to the ultimate steeplechase crown at Cheltenham in March.

This is back-from-the-brink stuff as last year he looked a shadow of his former self. Paul Nicholls knew no other way to dispel those calling for the horse’s retirement than to build him back up out of the ashes that were left after disappointing at Punchestown in May. Who is to say that he won’t go to the Gold Cup with a live chance?

As for statistics, he has already smashed all those into smithereens.

The argument will continue to rage as to what makes this horse so great. Ruby Walsh summed it up well in his post-race comments, saying that it was Kauto’s “longevity and versatility”. It is true that handicappers measure greatness by winning margin and weight-carrying ability, but Kauto is a renaissance horse. Despite not winning the Irish National and carrying big weights in handicaps he has done what Desert Orchid did, but more times over.

To keep any horse going for as long as Kauto Star is a massive challenge, but at that level is simply unheard of, so the team at Ditcheat must be given so much credit.

Grands Crus and Sprinter Sacre

In reference to the race itself, I thought Long Run ran a very similar race to Bobs Worth in the Feltham Novices’ Chase. Both looked to struggle with Kempton’s quick track and, rest assured, they will be both be seen to better effect round Cheltenham.

David Pipe’s Grands Crus was electric and his Festival target remains of great interest. Although no novice chaser has won the Gold Cup since 1974, he may be the type to be competitive in open company, having already run in a World Hurdle and won a novice chase at Cheltenham.

Sprinter Sacre certainly lived up to his lofty reputation by trouncing Peddler’s Cross in the Wayward Lad Novices’ Chase. For B J Geraghty to say he is possibly “the best I have ever ridden” is a gargantuan statement from a man who has ridden some of racing’s finest equine stars. This beautiful and muscularly refined beast moved with a light and graceful cadence while being bold and clever at his obstacles. There is no coincidence that some great horses (Nijinsky II, Nureyev etc) have been named after male ballet dancers!

Welsh and Irish action

While not winning with such graceful aplomb, equal in guts was Welsh National victor Le Beau Bai for fellow Herefordian Richard Lee. Richard has had his horses in tremendous form and this win was not coming out of turn for trainer or the grafting jockey Charlie Poste.

In Ireland, Leopardstown staged its Christmas festival on unusually good ground. AP McCoy was at his brilliant best in the Lexus Chase on Synchronised. This son of Sadler’s Wells was bred by Noreen McManus and carries on the legacy of the great sire, who died on 26 April last year.

It was fantastic to see his other jumping giant, Istabraq, looking so well while parading before the race named in his honour. The winner of this race, Unaccompanied, displays Sadler’s Wells’ attributes as a damsire and also shows a different strain of the famed Galileo/Danehill cross that produced Frankel (among many others) working as a reverse cross – and over jumps!

Hunting Wogan

Our inaugural Christmas party was a great success with any incidents being conspicuous by remaining unaccounted for! I have to admit to feeling slightly jaded the next day. A couple of hours hunting on Wogan quickly solved that. He proved a very able hunter and loved squelching along the rain-sodden banks of the River Wye. Sadly his thunder was stolen by the presence of dual Festival winner Idole First under former star lady rider Shirley Vickery.

Wogan disappointed at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day but I feel he is better suited by a flatter track as he can get into more of a rhythm. Newbury the previous day would probably have suited him better, but the ground was too soft for him there. He also has to go left-handed and has quite a high rating, so there are lots of criteria to fulfill before a race is deemed suitable, and then you need lots of luck.

Perhaps I need reminding of why I am doing this job again! Like a very large and complicated puzzle, there are so many pieces that need to go together for things to fall right.

The crowd at Cheltenham was incredible. This was probably in part due to the fact that New Year’s Day fell on Sunday, thus no hunting or shooting. Once again, one can only be thankful for a Christmas period with great weather and calendar construction that lent itself so well to horseracing – an easier time for stable staff and swelling crowds at the races.

I remain rather frustrated at times as things don’t always go the way you hope but The Queen reminded me in her Christmas Day speech that one of the festive themes is to “find hope in adversity”, which I will constantly strive to achieve. However, the adversity Her Majesty is referring to is on a whole new level to the apparent “adversity” that we are experiencing. Perhaps The Queen was referring to one’s subjective adversity, no matter how great or small; tackle it and move on.

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