IF the galloping grey Al Ferof lights up Boxing Day by winning the William Hill King George VI Chase, owner John Hales will owe a huge debt to his daughter Lisa.
She helped nurse this superb steeplechaser back to health, and fitness, after the gelding was diagnosed with debilitating stomach ulcers.
Her care meant that the rejuvenated nine-year-old had the form and fitness to roll back the years to win last month’s Grade Two Amlin 1965 Chase at Ascot, and Hales could not be more bullish about his horse’s prospects for Friday’s big race.
He is also no stranger to King George glory – his majestic One Man won the 1995 and 1996 renewals of this three-mile championship chase that was created to celebrate King George VI’s reign and was first run in 1937 when Southern Hero prevailed.
Hales believes the Paul Nicholls-trained Al Ferof is a “totally different horse” this year to 12 months ago when he was a remote third to stablemate and defending champion Silviniaco Conti who remains the clear market leader with the sponsors.
“I’m looking forward to the race much more so than 12 months ago,” Hales told The Yorkshire Post in an exclusive interview.
“Last year, Al Ferof had started off brilliantly in the Amlin Chase, but it was only a two-horse race and he beat French Opera with ease.
“From then on his performances deteriorated. In the King George, while he was third, he was too far back (14 and a half lengths). It wasn’t the real Al Ferof. He went to Newbury and he was a badly-beaten second to Harry Topper – again he was too far back for my liking.
“He disappointed again at Cheltenham, he was fifth to Dynaste in the Ryanair Chase, and Paul was concerned he had a problem with some of his horses – Unioniste, who I also have, was also not showing his potential.
“We looked into this very carefully and they were diagnosed with stomach ulcers. They came home to my daughter’s farm in Shropshire and she looked after them. Even after 12 weeks on grass, there were still signs of the ulcers so she continued the treatment. She did quite a lot of road work with Al Ferof, and had him on the horse walker, and he hadn’t been back at Paul’s all that long when he won the Amlin last month. Paul said Lisa had done a fantastic job and the horse will come on for the run.
“Wishfull Thinking was back in third – and he then won the Peterborough Chase to underline the form.”
Hales says the discomfort caused by the ulcers prevented Al Ferof from performing at his optimum and showing the class that the son of the sire Dom Alco had shown in the formative years of his National Hunt career.
This, after all, is a horse that won Cheltenham’s Supreme Novices’ Hurdle in 2011 – Sprinter Sacre no less was back in third – before defying top weight, and unsuitably heavy ground, to land the Paddy Power Gold Cup at the Cotswolds track in November 2012.
This was the culmination of a momentous year for Hales – his toy manufacturing business had won one of the key Olympic contracts and his predominantly yellow colours, made even more resplendent by an orange star and teddy bear, were carried to Grand National glory by the now retired Neptune Collonges, another progeny of the aforementioned Dom Alco.
However, Hales has realistic hopes that Al Ferof can develop into a genuine contender for next year’s Cheltenham Gold Cup, a race which was denied to One Man whose rapidly diminishing reserves of stamina twice ran out on the hill to the finish in heartbreaking fashion.
“If everything goes well on Boxing Day, my ambition is to take him to the Gold Cup,” added Hales, who is one of the more impassioned owners with a reputation for wearing his heart on his sleeve.
“He doesn’t have to win the King George, though that is our aim, but he has to prove that he has plenty of strength at the end of three miles. Ruby Walsh was on him at Ascot, but he is required by Willie Mullins, so Sam Twiston-Davies rides. I’m more than happy with that. I’ve said to Sam to watch the Amlin Chase because that was the real Al Ferof.
“Last year, we had an excuse. I have no excuses this year – I am confident we can beat Silviniaco Conti if it came down to a sprint.
“The one I don’t know about is Ruby’s horse Champagne Fever who is a bit in and out. Though Al Ferof is a good jumper, I always thought that One Man was an exceptional jumper.
“He would probably have won a Gold Cup if he stayed. It’s the one race I want to win. If it wasn’t for Kauto Star and Denman, Neptune Collonges would have won it. I’m still hoping Al Ferof can make the dream come true, but he has to be at his best at Kempton.”