Everybody loves an underdog story. It seems cliché at times to say, but nothing in sport, perhaps life in general, really compares to a shock victory. One in which an outsider comes out of nowhere almost unexpectedly to defy the odds and put their name in lights despite such little expectation.
Whilst Kempton Park Racecourse was hardly the picturesque backdrop akin to the conventional underdog movie, and the King George VI Chase, an admittedly popular Grade One horse race but not one that amasses the crowds redolent of a Hollywood blockbuster, still provides us with a location and a story to tell — the story of Tornado Flyer’s road to Cheltenham.
As the Festival approaches once again, anticipation seeps through the Gloucestershire air. When crowds finally feast upon the green pastures of mid-March, for the first time in two years due to the coronavirus pandemic, their previous conception of a champion can be misconstrued all within the first race. A punter’s dream of winning back on his day at the track, tarnished by an unexpected winner.
It’s strange how much the horse racing odds fluctuate so much throughout the four days of action at Cheltenham. The form guide is essentially tossed out of the window. As the Festival cycles through its itinerary all eyes are glued on the Gold Cup — the crème de la crème of the National Hunt season — the race Tornado Flyer will be aiming to cause an upset in.
For us to talk about Tornado Flyer’s Cheltenham hopes in any capacity, its important to establish some context. Whilst Boxing Day traditions for horse racing were back to normal ahead of a busy Christmas Festival, few would have imaged how the King George would have ended up. You’d have to go back as far as Nupsala in 1987 to find a winner with a starting price even close to that of the Willie Mullins-trained eight-year-old.
Off the back of 260-day break, Tornado Flyer had run just the once before the trip to Kempton—fifth in the Punchestown Chase and leaving a lot to be desired. Coming in as a 28/1 outsider, few would have backed his chances, especially when you look at the competition — a plethora of previous Grade One winners aligned to create a rogues’ gallery of racing excellence.
Vying for first place alongside current champion Frodon was the experienced Clan Des Obeaux and Saint Calvados, who are all trained by Paul Nicholls, while former Gold Cup winner Minella Indo was also in the mix. Despite the odds literally stacked against him, things just seemed to fall into place for Mullins, and his nephew Danny, who was aboard Tornado Flyer as he etched his name into King George folklore.
It looked like business as usual for Bryony Frost. She and Frodon enjoyed a successful calendar year, with victories at Sandown and Down Royal in the Champion Chase, and when she blitzed into an early lead it seemed a foregone conclusion.
He travelled well, as did Clan Des Obeaux but neither anticipated a surge of momentum from Tornado Flyer, who after making a mistake and dropping to the rear initially, steadied himself and took advantage of the tough conditions to push on towards the end of the three mile slog and snatch an unlikely victory. Stablemate Asterion Forlonge had also come close three lengths down into second, but this was the run of Tornado Flyer’s life — nothing was going to stop him, to the delight of his team.
“I got into a good position early and he travelled into the race very well. I just wanted to keep saving a bit as it's a long way down the straight here and thankfully I had a willing partner, which is what it's all about.” Danny said after celebrating as the heavens opened and rain began to thrash down on Kempton Park.
The Mullins factor played such a massive role in victory. This is a man who has been there and done it before and you only need to look at the Dublin Racing Festival, where he essentially performed a clean sweep in the Grade One races, to understand his impact as one of the sport’s legends.
“Every season he promises to run a race like that, but every season he tapers off. This year we changed the way we do things with him at home and it's obviously working.” He said post race back on Boxing Day, and if lighting is to strike twice, Cheltenham could well set the scene for a perfect storm.
It still remains to be seen if the King George win was a flash in the pan, or the building blocks for one last Mullins dynasty in the autumn of his training tenure. The Gold Cup certainly proves an interesting prospect, with several winners all possible, and when you factor in the unpredictability of Cheltenham, where anyone can win and even favourites A Plus Tard and Galvin aren’t guaranteed a podium place, the magic of Cheltenham could once again deliver, as the stage is set for the 18th of March.
Published by Samantha Brown