Santini appears unlikely to tackle the King George VI Chase next month following a return to action that, in the understated words of his trainer, Nicky Henderson, “was not Earth-shatteringly impressive”. But hopes are still nursed that this seven-year-old, so striking on looks, can make himself into a contender for the Cheltenham Gold Cup, despite running about a stone below what might have been expected here.
In fairness, the circumstances of this race did not lend themselves to an awe-inspiring performance. There were only four runners, none of them a natural pace-setter, and all of them returning from a summer’s break on softer ground than their connections were probably hoping to find.
Now McGinty, who trailed Santini by 27 lengths when they met at Cheltenham last March and was a 12-1 shot here, generously shouldered the burden of making the running and his reward was that he was still there to fight out a finish with the 1-3 favourite on the run-in. He battled hard and briefly looked like causing a significant shock but was beaten a head by his more imposing rival.
“Hard work, wasn’t it?” was the initial, pensive reaction from Henderson. “He was rusty and dusty. It did look laboured. He hasn’t come out and started the season with a bang, I’ll be the first to admit. I thought he’d got beat, to be honest with you.”
The spectators gained enormously, as there was a thrilling finish to a race which generally turns into a procession from the third-last. When Might Bite and Coneygree won it, there was no doubt about the outcome for at least the last half-mile.
Judged on this showing, Santini would not be in their class, but there are always excuses to make for a young horse and, on reflection, a few valid ones apply in his case. “The pace was just a bit stop/start the entire way,” said his jockey, Nico de Boinville. “I know the second horse runs in snatches. We were trying to help each other along and we ended up at the post together. There’s plenty to work on but we know the ability’s there.
“He wants big, galloping tracks. The Gold Cup course at Cheltenham will play into his hands. The Old Course in the RSA played against us, in a way. The improvement will come.”
Henderson pointed out that this was only Santini’s fourth run over fences. “He had a horrible season last year, to be fair. The whole thing got thrown completely out of synch with that wretched flu drama in February, because he was meant to go to the Reynoldstown for some experience before Cheltenham and then we couldn’t do that because we had to vaccinate the week before. It was straight into the RSA on two runs, no experience, and then he was lame for three weeks. Two days before the RSA, he was an unlikely runner but we just got him sound on the day and he ran a hell of a race on no preparation whatsoever.
“I think you’d have to say, he doesn’t look like a King George horse. That’s not his track. I think you put a line through the King George.”
But Santini will need a run between now and his Gold Cup prep at Cheltenham in late January and Henderson does not have many options, since he did not seem terribly keen on a trip to Ireland for the Savills Chase.
Anyone who thinks Santini will turn up for the King George anyway can now get 40-1, while the horse is a 10-1 shot for the Gold Cup behind Kemboy, Al Boum Photo and Lostintranslation.
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