King refuses to rule star out of Spirit

Alan King's eight-year-old gelding Bensalem
Alan King's eight-year-old gelding Bensalem
The start of racing on Washout Wednesday / Picture by Malcolm Wells

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Alan King has refused to rule out a shot at the National Spirit Hurdle with smart stayer Bensalem.

The Wiltshire trainer won Fontwell’s richest contest last term with Trenchant.

He also picked up the prize back in 2006 with My Way De Solzen, who went on to win the Ladbroke’s World Hurdle the following month.

Yesterday, King confirmed the Grade 2 race was on the agenda for Bensalem.

However, he admitted it is not the top priority in the eyes of his owners.

King switched the eight-year-old back to hurdles last April after Bensalem fell in the William Hill Trophy at the Cheltenham Festival.

The son of Turtle Island had reached a mark of 143 over fences, impressing in a narrow defeat to Gold Cup hopeful Diamond Harry in a novices’ chase at Newbury.

After his fall at Prestbury Park, Bensalem returned to hurdles to boost his confidence.

He finished second to Quevega in the Grade 1 World Series Hurdle at the Punchestown Festival and then fought off pneumonia to finish fifth behind Grand Crus in the Cleeve Hurdle on his seasonal reappearance last month.

But while he would be a leading contender for the blue-riband event at Fontwell on Sunday, February 27, connections would prefer a return to fences.

He is pencilled in to tackle the larger obstacles at Exeter on Sunday.

The race is seen as the ideal warm up for a second bid for glory in the William Hill Trophy at the Festival next month.

‘I’ve put Bensalem in a graduation chase at Exeter on Sunday but we’ll wait and see,’ said King, who trains at the picturesque Barbury Castle in Wiltshire.

‘Otherwise there’s the National Spirit Hurdle at Fontwell but the owners are very keen to go for the old William Hill at Cheltenham.’

Prior to his move to fences, Bensalem won three of his four outings over hurdles.

He soared to a mark of 153 after an eight-length victory over Our Bomber Harris at Cheltenham in 2009.

Diamond Harry proved his nemesis over hurdles, too, as he inflicted the Irish-bred gelding’s only defeat in the Grade 2 Classic Novices’ Hurdle earlier that year.

The National Spirit Hurdle is the feature contest of a seven-race card.