Return of the King

Sentimentality tends not to be in short supply among the faithful who flock annually to Cheltenham in March. They love a horse with a powerful story, one in whom they can invest not only their cash but also their emotions. They want a horse they can take to their hearts. In Balthazar King, they have one.

It helps that they know him well. No fewer than 17 of his 46 appearances have been at Cheltenham, where he has not only done much racing but also much winning, not least during the festival, at which he has twice been successful.

But at Aintree last April many feared a wonderful warrior had suffered the most terrible slice of ill fortune. That he has survived and will return to the festival in two weeks’ time should fill us with joy.

Now 12, Balthazar King initially raced for Anabel Murphy. After two starts Diana and Grahame Whateley moved him to Philip Hobbs but after nine outings, which yielded a solitary win in a bumper, he acquired new owners, a syndicate named The Brushmakers, headed by farmers David Rees and Chris Butler. It was in their colours that the son of King’s Theatre found fame. He won for the first time in his new colours under Richard Johnson at Ffos Las in October 2009. He then started winning a lot. The first success at Cheltenham was secured in a novice chase in April 2011. By then he was established as a smart performer. He continued to get better. The three-mile handicap chase at Cheltenham’s October Showcase fixture became an annual showcase of Balthazar King’s ability. He won it in 2011, 2012 and 2013. Not long after the first of those victories he had his initial experience of Cheltenham’s cross-country course. It was not a happy one. Turning for home all but three of the runners galloped, incorrectly, on to the Old course’s home straight. Despite Johnson’s furious efforts, Balthazar King was carried in the wrong direction and ended up crashing to the ground. It was a horrible fall. It would not be his last.

The second cross-country assault triggered festival celebrations in March 2012. He was then second on the track in November 2012 before winning that very same event in 2013 and 2014, in between which he also triumphed over the banks, bullfinches and Cheese Wedges at the 2014 festival. On top of all that he twice landed a crosscountry chase at Craon, in northwestern France, and also finished second to Pineau De Re in the 2014 Crabbie’s Grand National. Indeed, so admirable was his Aintree effort, posted on the sort of sound surface he adores, that by this time last year connections had already ruled out a bid to win the festival’s Cross Country Chase for the third time in order to maximise the veteran’s prospects of going one place better in the National. That Balthazar King fell at Aintree was not a seismic shock. He had already fallen once over fences and twice over hurdles, while even on his beloved cross-country course there was usually a blunder. Yet he had never experienced a fall like the one he suffered at the Canal Turn on the first circuit. Few horses have. As the field reached the same point on the second circuit the sight had become deeply worrying with the veteran hidden by green screens, causing the fence to be omitted.

We did not know it at the time but he had been left with broken ribs and a punctured lung. He was a very sick horse.

“It was quite horrific,” recalls Butler. “We watched the race from the top of the old owners’ and trainers’ grandstand and didn’t realise at first that his fall was so serious.

“It took us ages to get off the grandstand and then we couldn’t get through the crowds to find out what had happened. Once we found representatives of the racecourse they were so helpful. After they had got him off the track and into an ambulance we were told it was touch and go whether he would survive the journey to the equine hospital.”

Hobbs, who was at Aintree with wife Sarah, says: “It was particularly hard at first because we didn’t know what was happening. I had other runners in the race, so Sarah went down to see the horse. He did get up but then collapsed. He then got up again and stayed upright until they put him into the ambulance.”

Sarah Hobbs went with Balthazar King to the University of Liverpool Equine Hospital, where he was to stay for six weeks.

“The first few days he was very sore,” says Philip Hobbs. “He couldn’t be moved because of the broken ribs, although the ribs that punctured the lung weren’t the big problem. The injuries caused a bad infection in the lungs that came along after a week.

Controlling that proved very difficult and we were warned he might well not pull through. It was borderline stuff.

“Fortunately he was in the right place to be treated. He had to stay up there for a month, so it took a long time to sort him out, but once the infection was under control he was okay.”

Throughout this time the condition of Balthazar King, who also needed to have blood drained from his chest, became something of a rolling news story. He was pictured wearing what looked like a huge red bandage and was eventually taken by devoted groom and workrider Hannah Ball to the Hampshire home of Rees. There he became well enough to go hunting and thereafter for the owners and Hobbs to agree he should go back into training in December with the aim of winning the festival’s Cross Country Chase – now handily changed from a handicap to a conditions race – for the third time.

“With any person or horse, if they have a strong constitution it has to be a help in their recovery – and his is massively strong,” says Hobbs. “Maybe some horses wouldn’t have pulled through. There has been nothing clever in what we’ve done ourselves. It has just been a question of time.

“One thing worth adding is that he has been left with an indentation at the back end of his ribcage. It’s very difficult to know if that might make some difference to his lung capacity. The only way we have of assessing that for the moment is by his work at home and he has been going equally as well in his serious gallops as he ever has done. That’s hopefully a very good sign, although at the end of nearly four miles it could be a different story.

“We won’t know for sure until he runs, but based on everything we’ve seen here, it looks as though he’s as good as ever. The most important thing will be the ground as he doesn’t want it soft.”

Hobbs adds: “We decided not to enter him in the Grand National as we didn’t think it would be great PR given what happened there the last time he went. We wouldn’t have wanted to see him have another bad fall there. The other factor is if he does happen to win at Cheltenham, he would have a much better chance going to the cross-country at Lion d’Angers in May.”

Hobbs is a huge admirer of the horse, as is his stable jockey. “Dickie loves him because he says they’re both as thick as each other and never think of giving up,” says the trainer, who could well find himself part of one of the great Cheltenham Festival stories on March 16.

“We’re very attached to him,” admits Butler. “He’s a tough little lad and seems to put up with anything. He has fought his way back. When he was first ridden after his recovery he was on his toes with ears pricked. All he wants to do is be a racehorse.”

At Cheltenham, a place synonymous with courage and comebacks, Balthazar King will be a racehorse once more. The well-wishers cheering.

Lee Mottershead, Racing Post