King George heroes
Jonathan Doidge looks back at the rich history of the King George VI Chase ahead of Kauto Star's attempt for a fifth consecutive win.
By Jonathan Doidge
Last Updated: 13/01/11 1:32pm
Saturday's King George VI Chase looks to be the perfect vehicle for Kauto Star to eclipse all that have gone before and win his fifth successive renewal of the event, but there have been other true greats and memorable races for one of jump racing's classics.
Since Southern Hero first won the great prize in February 1937, there have been nine dual winners, a triple winner and two to have won the race four times.
Along with the current Kempton king, Desert Orchid also landed the prize four times from six attempts between 1986 and 1991, falling in the last of those and finishing second to French raider Nupsala in 1987.
There have been few finer sights on a racecourse than the gallant grey taking off outside the wings of some of his fences and, while his 1990 defeat of Cheltenham Gold Cup runner-up Toby Tobias and subsequent dual King George winner The Fellow was officially his best performance in the three-mile event, his most memorable win in the race was surely when he blitzed the field at his first attempt.
Regular pilot Colin Brown deserted 'Dessie' for stable companion Combs Ditch and few, except trainer David Elsworth, truly believed that the trailblazer would stay, but he led from pillar-to-post for a thrilling success.
The first to complete the King George - Gold Cup double in the same season had been the brilliant Cottage Rake, in 1948. Vincent O'Brien's nine-year-old was supremely versatile, being good enough to win the Irish Cesarewitch 12 months earlier and eventually going on to win three Gold Cups.
The legendary Fred Winter became the first jockey to win the race three times when Saffron Tartan took the 1960 event. Earlier, Winter had landed the prize twice on Mandarin, another all-time great, who also won two Hennessy Cognac Gold Cups, the Blue Riband event at Cheltenham and the French equivalent.
Winter went on to train Pendil to win the race in both 1972 and '73 and he was the first person to both ride and train a King George winner. Pendil won the race in style on both occasions and, in fact, he emerged victorious from his first 11 chases en route to being sent off favourite for both the 1973 and '74 Cheltenham Gold Cups. However, the racing Gods were against him on each occasion.
Mill House and the greatest of them all, Arkle, both enjoyed singular successes in the race, though sadly, the public saw the latter for the last time in the 1966 renewal when he fractured a pedal bone on the guard rail at one of the open ditches. He finished second despite that painful experience, but he never raced again.
Since those wins for Pendil in the early 1970s, there have been numerous horses that have repeated an initial success. Captain Christy claimed the crown in 1974, the same year as he had won the Gold Cup, and the Irish gelding made a successful return with a magnificent 30-length defeat of Bula a year later. Those victories meant that trainer Pat Taaffe joined Fred Winter in having ridden (Arkle) and trained a winner.
The Dickinson family can claim to have been more dominant in the race than any other, with Tony claiming three wins as a trainer with Gay Spartan (1978) and then back-to-back victories for Silver Buck in the following two seasons.
The latter would have been a leading player in his bid for a hat-trick, but the abandonment of the 1981 renewal cost him that chance, and a year later it was Michael Dickinson who had taken over training duties, though nothing could stop him winning.
Dickinson junior had an enviable team of chasers that dominated the sport in the early '80s, not least Wayward Lad, who cruised to success in 1982 and '83, before pulling off an emotional and hard-fought third success two years later, when Michael had headed off for pastures new and mother Monica held the licence.
France had claimed a first King George through Nupsala, interrupting the Desert Orchid years, and the early 1990s belonged very much to handler Francois Doumen, who sent out The Fellow to win successive Christmas crowns and added another with Algan.
Another hugely popular grey, One Man, holds the unique distinction of winning the race twice in the same year. The 1995 running was abandoned at Kempton due to snow and frost, meaning a switch to Sandown Park. The grey romped home an impressive winner a couple of weeks after the originally-scheduled date, in January '96, and then followed-up back at Kempton on Boxing Day of the same year.
Sandown also staged the event in 2005, when Tom Taaffe's Kicking King added to his Sunbury success a year earlier, with a Gold Cup sandwiched between them to underline his class. Triple Gold Cup scorer Best Mate had preceded all of that with a Kempton win of his own.
So, with the exceptions of Red Rum and Flyingbolt, all of the true legends of the winter game have been lauded as King George VI Chase winners and the race stands second only to the Cheltenham championship in terms of prestige and history, as far as Grade 1 races go.
Champion trainer Paul Nicholls has notched up a record six wins in the race, with dual success for tough and talented See More Business (1997 and 1999) preceding Kauto Star's quartet. The Ditcheat handler will have high hopes that Kauto Star, who put up the best ever performance to win a King George a little over 12 months ago, can complete his own famous five-timer and make it a magnificent seven for his handler.