Donn's Articles » Tom Taaffe

Tom Taaffe

Tom Taaffe pulls a baby carrot from the basket that hangs beside the stable door and extends it towards the horse. The response from the inhabitant is immediate, indifferent to engrossed in one sleight of hand, head turned and moving, inquisitive at worst, incentivised at best. There’s the familiar head-carriage, long ears twitching, the identifier that is the white splodge almost smack bang in the middle of his forehead, perhaps a little closer to the right eye than the left. You may not have seen him for over two years, but that’s Kicking King all right, and he’s back.

It doesn’t seem like that long ago when you last saw Kicking King in his civvies at Portree, the reigning champ, a rug on his back to protect him from the elements just after stretching his legs on the gallop, busy bucking and kicking and having a roll in the muck, which didn’t do too much for the laundry bill but betrayed a wellbeing that would carry him to victory in the 2005 King George at Sandown six days later. It may not seem like that long ago, but it was. To put it into context, on the day that he got home by a neck from Monkerhostin in that King George, Darkness won the Feltham Chase and was installed as favourite for the Sun Alliance, Feathard Lady danced in in the Christmas Hurdle and Missed That won the Durkan New Homes Novice Chase at Leopardstown. That’s how long ago December 2005 is.

They never come back, they say. Count on your fingers the number of top racehorses who have staged a comeback after a protracted period on the sidelines, and competed successfully at the highest level again, and you will do well to use both hands. Even from last year’s Grade 1 recuperation room: War Of Attrition, Nicanor, Trabolgan, Noland – we’re still waiting; Star De Mohaison – the waiting is over, but we’re still not sure.

Kicking King, Gold Cup winner, dual King George winner, was due to take the first shaky steps on the road back to Cheltenham this afternoon in the Norman’s Grove Chase at Fairyhouse, but that plan has been washed away in the recent cloudbursts. Taaffe isn’t too perturbed. It’s a bit of a pain, an inconvenience, but that’s all. It’s still the right contest for the horse’s first race in more than two years. Weather permitting, the race will now be run on Wednesday and, all things being equal, Kicking King will be in the line-up.

As comebacks go, this one would be right up there with The Cinderella Man. Kicking King is 10 years old. No 10-year-old has won the Gold Cup since Cool Dawn prevailed a decade ago. Indeed, in this era of youth, four of the last six winners were just seven, mere adolescents, and the other two were Best Mate. On his side is the fact that this 10-year-old is a relatively lightly-raced 10-year-old, having contested just 23 races in his life to date. Even so, it’s not going to be easy.

The injury was a sickener. Taaffe isn’t sure exactly when the damage to the horse’s near-fore tendon began. It may have been when he ran in the Betfair Chase at Haydock in November 2005, when he finished third behind Kingscliff after tearing a shoe off half way around. Haydock just passed an inspection that morning, and the ground was sticky and possibly frozen in places down deep, so that might have been the start of it.

If the problem was incubated at Haydock, it was exacerbated at Sandown which, by all accounts, had four different types of ground on the chase track on the day. That can increase the likelihood of injury as horses adapt to the terrain while covering it at 30 miles an hour. Taaffe thought that his horse would win more easily than he did. He was surprised that Monkerhostin got to within a neck of him. Coming back on the plane from Sandown, he tossed the race over in his head. Before Sandown, he was sure that he had had him as well as he had ever had him. So how come he could only beat Monkerhostin by a neck?

When he got home, Taaffe watched the video. He watched the run from the second last to the line a couple of times, and noticed that the horse changed his legs several times. Why was he doing that? At the line, he looked like a tired horse, his action was gone and, actually, he just scrambled home in the end.

The trainer watched the horse carefully over the next couple of days. Something was amiss. He wasn’t certain, and most of the lads in the yard thought that it was nothing, but he thought that something was ailing the horse, and Taaffe is long enough in this game to know when something isn’t right. Three days after the King George, he phoned Kicking King’s owner, Conor Clarkson, to tell him that he was a little concerned. By the morning of January 2nd, the little problem still seemed to be there, so he got the vet to come in to scan the horse’s near-fore. Taaffe was on his way to Cork races when he got the phone call to tell him that the tendon was gone. When you are in the business of training racehorses, tendon is one of the last words that you want to hear. Taaffe’s Glenfinn Captain beat Thyne Again in the feature race at Cork that day, and he saddled In The High Grass to win the maiden hurdle, but it all passed him by.

“You want to find a hole and hide in it,” he says now, remembering that day. “I didn’t want to go racing at all. After winning the Gold Cup so impressively, to get flattened like that, it was fairly devastating. Having said that, if you told me that there was a horse out there who would win a Gold Cup and two King Georges and then break down, I’d give you my left arm for him. I suppose you have to put everything into perspective.”

Kicking King was building up to a return to action in the Paddy Power Dial-A-Bet Chase at Leopardstown’s 2006 Christmas Festival when his tendon went again. November 21st 2006, another day to forget, two days after he had been away to do a decent piece of work, Taaffe noticed that there was a slight change in the way that his near-fore was handling.

“You half become a vet yourself when you are training horses,” he says. “I thought there was a little change in him, we did the usual things, hosing and icing, but there was no change, so after a couple of days we had him scanned, and the scan told us that we were in trouble again. That was a big blow to everybody in the yard. Obviously it meant that you were gone for the entire year, all those dreams and hopes that you had for the year were gone there and then. But that’s racing. It’s often a question of wearing short trousers or long trousers and, in this game, you need to be able to wear long ones.”

Of course he has missed him. When you have scaled more lofty heights than you dared imagine on the back of a trampoline, and someone takes away your trampoline, of course you are going to lament its absence.

Taaffe remembers watching the 2005 Gold Cup in the owners’ and trainers’ stand at Cheltenham. Kicking King had just come back from illness then, and his instructions to Barry Geraghty were to pull him up if he wasn’t travelling. If he did travel and was fully recovered, Taaffe expected that he was the best horse in the race. He did and he was. The trainer’s over-riding feeling when his horse careered away up the run-in was one of relief. The elation didn’t follow for a couple of days. John Magnier told Taaffe afterwards that he hadn’t seen a jockey take a pull on a horse at the third last in a Gold Cup since he had seen Pat Taaffe, Tom’s father, take a pull on Arkle 40 years previously.

Ask Taaffe how good a race the 2005 Gold Cup was compared to the 2007 Gold Cup, or the 2008 Gold Cup; ask him how good Kicking King was in his pomp compared to Kauto Star and Denman, and how close he can get to that level of ability again, and he is circumspect.

“Kauto Star has now done exactly what Kicking King has done,” he says. “He has won two King Georges and a Gold Cup. He has to get there on the day, he has to stay healthy, and he has to win the Gold Cup if he is to get ahead of him. Cane Brake finished 10 lengths behind Kauto Star last year in a slowly-run Gold Cup. That would raise questions in my mind, as I think he could have got to within five lengths if we had ridden him more forcefully. That said, Kauto Star was really impressive at Kempton last time, but it is possible to pick holes in the form of that race. I’ll put it to you this way: he’s not unbeatable. Obviously, we have to get back to be as well as we can be, but if we can, I’m not afraid of Kauto Star, or anything else.”

Long live the king.

© The Sunday Times, 20th January 2008