A Yard Where Things Never Go Flat

Alan King | racingfotos.com

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The man for all seasons stands at the top of the Sharpridge gallop and doesn't need the delirious commentary of the skylarks to tell him that spring is now right on the heels of winter. Alan King can see that straight in front of him. The first pair to emerge from the murk of the distant valley floor includes his latest steeplechasing star, Edwardstone (GB) (Kayf Tara {GB}), doing his first work since winning at the Cheltenham Festival–and with a gusto that suggests he can eke out one last novice spin at Aintree. The agendas of some in his wake, however, are only just taking shape: a 3-year-old by Churchill (Ire), for instance, who laid the usual, quiet foundations at two before winning a mile nursery on his final start. And King is already looking forward to his next crop of juveniles moving into Barbury Castle, as soon as Aintree is out of the way: some from the imminent breeze-up sales, others from pre-trainer Jamie Magee.

Last year, for the first time, King's Flat squad broke seven figures in domestic earnings–which obviously excluded the imported Prix du Cadran. Still more instructive than that second consecutive Group 1 for Trueshan (Fr) (Planteur {Ire}), however, was the G2 Richmond S. success of Asymmetric (Ire) (Showcasing {GB}): one of the sharpest tests of a summer 2-year-old, to complement the Goodwood Cup marathon just a couple of days previously. This kind of thing has been within the compass of very few trainers since the heyday of David Elsworth and Peter Easterby.

“I did think that the Richmond might do more to promote my Flat career than just winning with another of my old stayers!” says King. “That doesn't seem to have happened, as yet; hasn't appeared to attract anyone new. But there you are, we'll keep working at it.”

Training across such a broad spectrum isn't something that many people even try these days. Yes, we've seen plenty of National Hunt trainers milking extreme tests like the Ascot S. and the Cesarewitch–and King, just like Willie Mullins and Nicky Henderson, has won both in recent years. But having initially dabbled with the Flat purely on economic grounds, King has gradually evolved into the premier dual-purpose trainer in the land.

“It all started when I first came here, in the early 2000s,” he reflects. “It soon became fairly apparent that we needed to do something in the summer, from an income point of view. It's obviously a great place to train, but it's also very expensive. I can't afford to have half the yard standing idle, it just wouldn't work.”

He tested the water in 2002 with three juveniles, one acquired as a yearling and two from the breeze-ups. Working with Anthony Bromley, as always, he spent just 54,000gns for the trio. Yet Salsalino (GB) (Salse) was beaten a short head in the King George V H. at Royal Ascot; a length in the G3 Gordon S. at Goodwood; and ran third as the only 3-year-old in the Ebor. Howle Hill (Ire) (Ali-Royal {Ire}) won a Newmarket nursery before running fifth in the Triumph Hurdle. And Trouble At Bay (Ire) (Slip Anchor {GB}), after scoring a couple of times on the Flat, ran up a sequence of five juvenile hurdles.

Despite this hugely auspicious experiment, King was making such an impression in his core business that he took a while to respond to his cue.

“The jumping was really taking off at the time,” he recalls. “We just had so many coming in, we got up to about 180, and for the next few years I sort of squeezed the Flat horses out again. But after a while I began to feel that we were getting more quantity than quality and, over the last five or six years now, we've pushed it back and back. And if we're not quite 50-50 yet, we're getting that way.”

King has always appreciated Flat racing, right back to the days when he would take a week's holiday for Royal Ascot when assistant to David Nicholson. He has made an almost unfailing pilgrimage to the meeting, ever since, and took due pride when Primitivo (GB) (Excellent Art {GB}), found for 10,000gns in Book 3, won the King George V Handicap in 2016. And, lest we forget, the unmissable breakthrough he made at Goodwood last summer had been well signposted at Royal Ascot in 2020, where King sent out five runners for three wins, a half-length second, and the G2 Coventry fifth.

“The plan had always been mainly to buy staying pedigrees, try to win a race or two on the Flat and then go jumping,” King muses. “But one or two of them have proved too good for that. We sold Primitivo to Hong Kong for a fortune, but he'd showed what we could do, and then Trueshan came along. Again, he was bought to be a dual-purpose horse–and he has actually schooled over hurdles–but it became abundantly clear that he was too good to go jumping, and he's just progressed year on year.”

King's success reproves the prescriptive tendency of so many trainers presented with a given package of pedigree and physique.

“I like to think that for any horse arriving here, whether unraced or from another yard, I will want to start with a blank piece of paper,” he says. “If something has been wearing headgear, I'll take it off. Otherwise they get pigeonholed, and I want to form my own opinion. You don't force them to do things. You find out what works for them.”

Certainly it's uncommon and intriguing to see such diverse projects sharing the same schedule, the same gallop even: from unnamed 5-year-old stores to young Flat handicappers. In every case, it's the response to a shared challenge that determines the strategy.

“Suddenly one horse starts to find it very easy, so you move him up a group, and you just keep creeping up and up, see how far he can go,” King explains. “With others you might have to do the opposite, when their work plateaus out. You don't want them to lose confidence. Bad horses find that hill difficult their whole lives. But then you'll see something, not long broken, and think: 'Bloody hell, he shouldn't have been able to go up there like that…'”

Admittedly the juveniles are confined to their own barn. But they couldn't enter the system so seamlessly without an indispensable grounding from Magee.

“I can only do this because I've got Jamie over the hill,” King emphasises. “I wouldn't even have the boxes at the minute, anyway, so you need someone who'll work the way you want it done. By the time we swap over, they're already three-parts fit. Jamie boxes them over so that they're used to gallop. A lot of people maybe wouldn't have that kind of option, and to me it's the only way it can work.”

For all its momentum on the Flat, however, there's no mistaking the boost to stable morale in relieving a notorious seven-year itch at the Festival. Of course, King is hardly alone in lately struggling to stem the Irish tide at Cheltenham–not least with his resources increasingly diluted by the Flat.

“In those seven years, we'd had a lot of horses run awfully well there,” he stresses. “And it shows how competitive it is nowadays. It's much tougher to win than it used to be. But yes, of course, we were delighted to get back on the scoresheet; and that people won't still be going on about it!

“With Edwardstone it's all just been a question of time. He's a big horse, and was always inclined to over-race over hurdles. It took him a long time to learn to race properly. That only comes with match practice, though obviously fences can help a horse settle too. We always thought of him as a good horse, right from his bumper days, but what he is now has been quite a long time in the making.”

To that extent, indeed, what makes King such a good trainer of jumpers is no less pertinent to his success on the Flat. At six, after all, Trueshan would actually still be a pretty young horse over jumps. In his chosen discipline, however, the gelding has benefited from no less patience. Remember, this is another of the stable's many breeze-up graduates, found for just 31,000gns at the Tattersalls Guineas Sale.

“He's been maturing all along,” King says. “And we've minded him, especially with the ground. I'm actually quite happy to run him on good going. But every day we took him out last season it was pretty bloody quick. Obviously the one race we were desperate to run in was the [G1 Ascot] Gold Cup, but the rain literally came a few hours too late. So we'll just duck and dive with him. He's about ready to start, in fact he might go to Nottingham next week [Listed Further Flight S.] if the ground is suitable.

“He's pretty lethal when he gets his conditions. It's not so much that he needs soft ground, he probably just handles it better than a lot of other horses. And he gets the trip extremely well. I thought he must be awfully good, to win the way he did at Goodwood. He did an awful lot wrong in that race. It can be a tricky place to settle–you're constantly up, down, left, right–and he was so lit up I was really worried he mightn't get home. So to power away like that in the last half-furlong, he must be quite a horse. But he was very smooth in France, and while he was probably past his best in his final start at Ascot–it was only a fortnight later–we got away with it.”

Much as was the case with Primitivo, however, King has lost the services of Asymmetric after giddily elevating his export value. He has been sold to clients of Wesley Ward, but King remains very grateful to have had an opportunity to show his versatility.

“It was really all down to Martin Harley,” he says. “A couple of his mates had bought him as a yearling, and Martin thought he was very good when he rode him at the breezes. When he didn't make as much as they wanted, they said, 'Right, you have a go with him.' We had terrific fun with him, though he was a very mature horse at two so it'll be interesting to see how he does over there.”

King will be joining Bromley back on the breeze-up circuit over the coming month, albeit not at Doncaster where the catalogue is plainly tailored to other needs. Elsewhere, moreover, their only interest in the stopwatch is in determining what they can afford.

“We're not in the least bit worried about times, except in that they can put themselves out of our price range,” he remarks. “We've bought a stack of pretty smart ones out of the breeze-ups. Bromley knows exactly the type I like, we've been mates forever and it works great. I like a decent-sized individual, and correct: I'm very fussy on conformation. But I've been saying for a while that if someone's got £100,000 to spend, I'd rather take them to the breeze-ups than buy something that's finished third or fourth in a point-to-point. I'm not saying those won't be good horses, just that you get better value this way.”

Never a dull moment, then, at Barbury Castle. By the time summer follows on spring, the pressure will be back on for Ascot and Goodwood. Never an idle moment, either–and such a relentless schedule would not be for everyone.

“We're lucky that we can get away for a break in January,” King says. “But it is pretty full-on. You're at it 12 months. But I'd get very depressed, looking at the profit-and-loss in months when there'd be nothing coming in. And I think it works well for a lot of the horses. They can't all be Sea Pigeon, going from Ebors to Champion Hurdles, but sometimes it can just sweeten them up; toughen them up, even. Raymond Tusk (Ire) (High Chaparral {Ire}) is a good example. He didn't really take to hurdling, but he looked a different horse back on the Flat at Doncaster last weekend. He's still an entire 7-year-old, and I think the few spins over hurdles might just have toughened him up a little.”

And a parallel stimulation, of course, extends to those supervising these horses: staff, owners, trainer. King has been too accomplished for too long still to fret about mere volume. Fulfilment, these days, feels far more focused. He takes great professional satisfaction, for instance, in targeting the 'GBB' Mare bonuses; and he got a real kick, too, from a first winner at Kelso last weekend.

“Unfortunately the ones that are left are mostly also in Scotland,” he admits, to the mortification of his Caledonian heritage. “Perth is still on the hitlist, and Musselburgh, and Hamilton. And otherwise there's Carlisle, I don't think I've even had a runner there. But those are the sort of things we enjoy doing nowadays. And I do find it very satisfying to knock off those big winners. I take a fair bit of abuse from the Flat boys, the likes of Sir Mark [Prescott] and William Haggas. But we have a good bit of craic together. It's a different challenge, and some of these big races will mean more to you than 100 novice hurdles.”

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