Kalahari King gets his sea legs primed for early test

"IF it was good enough for Red Rum, it's good enough for Kalahari King."

This is the no-nonsense mantra of Ferdy Murphy, the top North Yorkshire trainer, who has been forced – once again – to train his string of horses on the beaches of North Yorkshire because his gallops were left snow-bound.

It worked for Red Rum; the salt water soothed the horse's legs so that he could win an unprecedented three Grand Nationals in the 1970s. For Murphy, the regular trips to Redcar have been out of necessity ahead of Kalahari King's reappearance in today's Tingle Creek Chase at Cheltenham.

Murphy does not expect to win. The high-quality field is headed by Master Minded, the mercurial two-time Queen Mother Champion Chase victor who has returned to his imperious winning ways this season after a disappointing 2009-10 campaign.

Murphy, as shrewd as ever, also realises that the National Hunt Festival next March is the defining week for jump racing; there is no point peaking too soon.

However, today's contest will give him a better idea about Kalahari King's form and fitness following the horse's reappearance at Kelso last month when the hot pace, and a jumping blunder in front of the stands, eventually took their toll.

"In the last eight days, he's been to the beach six times and had two good sessions in our indoor school," said the West Witton handler.

"We're luckier than most because we've been able to get the horse box to Redcar.

"It was a hard race at Kelso and we think he knocked a couple of his vertebrae out of sync, but he's back on his food and he's been a revelation in the last week. He loves the sea. It worked wonders for Red Rum, and Kalahari loves it."

The trainer accepts that Master Minded is the horse to beat. He also has great respect for the Nick Williams-trained Gauvain, a stablemate to recent Hennessy hero Diamond Harry.

Connections of Master Minded are certainly bullish. After a winning comeback at Ascot last month, champion trainer Paul Nicholls simply wants his horse to put two winning runs together following a disrupted season as the horse recovered from a broken rib.

"I'm very happy with him and we've had no problems since Ascot," said Nicholls.

"Hopefully, he'll be hard to beat and it would be nice to see him put two races together."

But Kalahari King is a Cheltenham specialist – he has been placed at the last three Festivals and clearly relishes the testing two mile trip combined with the stiff uphill finish.

Fourth in the 2008 Supreme Novices, he was an unlucky second in the 2009 Arkle Chase when denied by Forpadydeplasterer before battling on to be third behind Big Zeb in the Queen Mother Champion Chase, with the aforementioned Master Minded a tired fourth.

With connections of Big Zeb saying their horse has improved – he reappears later this month – Murphy knows that Kalahari King, 10 on New Year's Day, will have to keep improving if he is to land a championship race.

He is not without his supporters, however – Channel Four betting pundit Tanya Stevenson staked a 250 each way charity bet on the horse, at odds of 33-1, to win the Champion Chase in March.

"Fingers crossed, I'm just looking for a good run today and to finish in the first three," said Murphy.

"He's a much better horse in the Spring – but it's important to get a run while we can.

"You don't know what the weather is going to be like between now and the Festival.

"We had to carry top weight in the Doncaster handicap last year before Cheltenham, and that probably took the edge off Kalahari.

"Things will be much clearer after today."