26th December 2005 was the first time the family really had to face up to the fact they had lost me to racing. The whole extended family on my mum’s side gathered at the local carvery for what was becoming a traditional Boxing Day lunchtime meal- everyone that is except me; I was sat in the car park with a handheld radio listening to Impek finish a distant third to the King of Kicking. Still not sure why I didn’t back him each way… I may have returned in disgrace halfway through the starters but I had made my point – Boxing Day was from now on about Kempton (or as was the case in 05- Sandown) and not much else.
The recent King George roll of honour is dominated by that famous dressage horse Kauto ‘Five Kings’ Star and his regular partner in Christmas cheer Ruby Walsh. A glance at Kauto’s winning distances for the race – 8L, 11L, 8L again, 36L and finally 1.25L as an 11yo – confirm just how superior to the rest our favourite dancing horse was at the Sunbury venue. Kauto’s tally of five Boxing Day wins is one ahead of the four earned by Dessie in the late 80s and a look back through the past winners of the race shows a number of dual and triple winners- fact is there have been just 18 different victors in more than 30 races since 1978. Some horses just love Kempton.
Pre-Kauto, the early 2000s saw some real deserving winners of the contest:
2001: “Can Florida Pearl win the King George??” Simon Holt asked as the Irish raider and Best Mate approached the last in the second renewal of the new millennium- he could, finally securing top honours after a number of placings in Britain’s best staying chases.
2002: Ridden with more confidence in his stamina than the previous year, Best Mate got his revenge on Florida Pearl to add the George to his first of three Gold Cups secured in March. Matey needed every last drop of staying power in a gruelling race, beating off Marlborough after an almighty scrap after the second last. A true chasing great!
2003: French raider Jair Du Cochet fluffed his lines in a big way as 2000 Champion Chase winner Edredon Bleu made all in a below-par renewal. In some cases though it’s not the strength of form that matters – in ’03 the rousing performance of a hugely popular veteran made the race a truly memorable one.
2004/05: Kicking King was good enough to win two King Georges and a Gold Cup, but with Best Mate’s hat-trick at Prestbury Park proceeding his efforts and the Kauto/Denman rivalry following not long after his retirement Tom Taffe’s champ will probably not get the recognition he deserves in future. He ran a quite outstanding time in ’04 in beating strong stayer Kingscliff and won despite being below par at Sandown in ’05.
This season’s renewal of the race is typically intriguing despite the loss of a potentially key player in Al Ferof this week. The Paddy Power has thrown up Gold Cup winners Imperial Commander and Long Run in recent years and John Hales’ grey looked a live contender to further enhance the standing of the Cheltenham handicap. Instead we are left with the winners of a King George and Gold Cup (Long Run), a Champion Chase and a Melling (Finian’s Rainbow), a Ryanair (Riverside Theatre), the Gold Cup second (The Giant Bolster) and a couple of 2012 Grade One novice winners (Sir Des Champs and Menorah) – this without mentioning Grade One winners Grands Crus, Captain Chris and Kauto Stone. Oh and Hunt Ball. And Cue Card, who is around the 4/1 mark despite never winning at the top level…
CAPTAIN CHRIS (Philip Hobbs): Stamina and no shortage of class won him the Arkle in 2011 after which he was considered a real contender for the top staying chases in future- Hobbs was inclined to mention the King George of 2011 straight after his Cheltenham victory. Well beaten behind Kauto that year but went straight from tipping up at the last in the Haldon Gold Cup – this time he’ll line up off the back of a fairly smart effort when winning at Ascot. Hard to make too much of the form of that race considering the ground and the fact none of the quartet would’ve been happy on it, and with Chris running a bit of a “Tidal Bay” type race in the Ryanair it’s not set in stone that he truly gets home. Has about a stone to find with an in-form Long Run.
CHAMPION COURT (Martin Keighley): Rarely runs away from Prestbury Park. Returned at Ascot last month over a little more than two miles and time may tell that he ran an absolute screamer giving lumps of weight to William’s Wishes over a trip short of his best. That run came on heavy ground – the fact he appeared to handle things okay will be in his favour but the extra mile would be of much more concern. His trainer mentioned the King George straight after finishing second to Silviniaco Conti at Aintree in April and also felt his horse wasn’t operating at 100% at Liverpool. Taking that into consideration he’s clearly a smart, progressive horse having also chased home the re-opposing Sir Des Champs at the Festival. Question is whether he can improve the stone+ that he may well need to from that Cheltenham effort? A massive ask, however there will certainly be worse 25/1 shots than this seven-year-old should he truly stay.
CUE CARD (Colin Tizzard): No disrespect meant but Cue Card at (at biggest) 9/2 for a King George? Can he stay three miles in what could be desperate ground come Boxing Day? It would certainly be a surprise to me as he appears to be a 2 1/2 miler, albeit one with a huge amount of natural ability- giving Bobs Worth 7lbs and being beaten a short head was some effort over 20 furlongs at Newbury last year. That natural ability means that I’m loathe to totally write him off but I’m very much of the opinion that these conditions will not see him at his best, and as a front-runner it is vital jockey Joe Tizzard does not get things wrong pace-wise. He also has Junior to bother him up front- I imagine Pipe’s horse isn’t going to be taking things slowly either. I would want him to be a fair bit bigger than double the price of guaranteed stayer Long Run before entertaining him as a betting proposition.
FINIAN’S RAINBOW (Nicky Henderson): If Cue Card isn’t going to stay then what to say about Finian’s? Just a couple of quotes from Nicky Henderson –
“When he is really good he is a two miler” – after the Champion Chase this year
“… we haven’t learnt anything at all except not to run him on soft ground again” – after finishing last of four on heavy ground at Ascot.
Errrr what more to say about a race on probably heavy ground over three miles? Ton of ability, huge engine… deep ground stayer? Unlikely, although Henderson did allude to the fact the horse was ‘learning how to race’ after winning over 2 1/2 miles at Aintree. Would he be running in this race if it wasn’t for Sprinter Sacre? Unlikely, and despite his obvious talents I imagine he will struggle to finish in the top two of the runners from his own stable on Boxing Day.
FOR NON STOP (Nick Williams): When I rang The Duke this morning bemoaning my failure to find a confident selection for the race he gave this horse a mention but he’s another who may be treading water come the second or third last. Like Champion Court he is by no means a rank outsider having hosed up at Aintree in October and with form in the past that doesn’t put him too far behind Cue Card or Al Ferof. Does though have a lot of ground to make up on Sir Des Champs based on their running at Chelts in March and his form and the opinion of his trainer suggests that he’ll not be happy in the guaranteed soft ground. Ran well enough in the mud behind Captain Chris at Ascot but that form may well be worthless in hindsight with none of the runners enjoying conditions- nice horse who appears to have progressed over the summer though looks likely to be found wanting up in trip in the wet.
GRANDS CRUS (David Pipe): My idea of the winner after his round in the Feltham last season. A year on and that confidence has been severely dented, if not by an expected reverse in the RSA then by the pretty lifeless effort in the Paddy Power on ground he will meet again at Kempton. Back when the Pond House license was in the name of M.C. Pipe there would be a lot less concern about a horse arriving for a big race on the back of being pulled up – Our Vic, Paddy Power, 2005. Now though the Pipes are not ahead of the game with getting their horses fitter or better prepared than the rest and Grands Crus’ only win in genuine soft ground came in a novice hurdle at Plumpton back in 2010. Another though with a huge amount of ability and unlike a fair few of these he has form over three miles round here- form which has been strengthened by the subsequent exploits of Bobs Worth and Silviniaco Conti, two of the favourites for the Gold Cup. The ground is the nagging doubt, and the addition of Junior from the same stable is likely to be more of a hindrance than a help to Grands Crus considering he has been entered to make the most of his stamina. Needs to improve on his Feltham form and whether has or not is anyone’s guess considering he’s not had his ideal conditions – has had a breathing op.
HUNT BALL (Kieran Burke): His progress last season has been well documented, as have the exploits of his owner who appears, quite frankly, to be a bit of a wazzock! Pulled up alongside Grands Crus in the Paddy Power and connections were adamant that the ground was to blame – if so then he’s another who will be going nowhere fast come the business end in the King George. Did prove he was deserving of a place at the top table when rounding off an incredibly busy season by being Grade One placed at Aintree but that race doesn’t really compare too well with this line up. Likely to give his best but come up short.
JUNIOR (David Pipe): On the face of it Junior is well out of his depth in a King George but on closer inspection there have been far worse examples of tilting at windmills. Likely that he’ll go to the front and try and stay there, and should his young jock get things right in front it wouldn’t be surprising to see him have one or two of the more fancied runners in a lot of trouble. Unlikely, however, that he will have all of his opponents still trailing him come the winning line as despite him being able to handle conditions and be a stone cold guaranteed stayer he has been operating at a much lower level than these over fences. With the number of dubious stayers/horses disliking the ground he could possibly, maybe, potentially hold on for fourth but any closer would be a major surprise.
KAUTO STONE (Paul Nicholls): Nicholls’ only representative has the enviable job of stepping up to take the place of his half brother now that Al Ferof is out of the contest. A good horse in his own right, he’s still only six-years-old and appeared to see out the trip well when winning the JNwine in Ireland- until then he had been very disappointing after chasing home Sizing Europe in the Tingle Creek over a year ago, and the fact he went off 4/1 for the Irish race despite form figures of 7F7 suggests it wasn’t a particularly strong Grade One. Along with the vanquished First Lieutenant running a strong race in the Hennessy, what is in his favour is the race was over three miles on soft ground – unlike a large proportion of his opponents he has proven he is at home in such conditions. An interesting contender whose form suggests he’s an early season horse.
LONG RUN (Nicky Henderson): As desperately dull as this selection is, in my opinion 5/2 Long Run is an outstanding price. In the last two seasons Long Run has run to marks of 181 at Kempton after a slightly below-par reappearance effort – after a similar return to action in the Betfair Chase last month the horse (still only seven years old) should be primed to run to a similar figure come the big day. Despite my feeling that Long Run has turned into a bit of a grinder in comparison to the sparkling novice we saw three years ago he would not need an exceptional performance to win this race and would almost certainly not need to improve on his last two King George runs. It boils down to the fact that one of his opponents is likely to need to run to 178+ in order to beat him- I am struggling to find a rival who is likely to do so.
MENORAH (Philip Hobbs): Made a sketchy start to his fencing career having been good enough to go off 3/1 for the Champion Hurdle in 2011, failing to complete twice in his first four novice chases before being beaten miles when third to Sprinter Sacre at Cheltenham. Did win the Grade One novice chase at Aintree but has been disappointing again twice since. Out of his depth on first try over three miles on ground he won’t enjoy.
RIVERSIDE THEATRE (Nicky Henderson): Ran a horror race last time out at Aintree on his third appearance in under two months – Henderson has since said it is important to keep him fresh to see him at his best. Chased home Long Run in the “2010” running of this race but was a long way behind and hasn’t improved on the figures since. Won a competitive Ryanair Chase in March without needing to find that improvement and will be vulnerable to a 100% Long Run on all the evidence but has a solid each way chance as a 170-rated horse with form on soft ground.
SIR DES CHAMPS (Willie Mullins): Hugely exciting Irish novice last season when he won at both the Cheltenham and Punchestown Festivals- the Punchestown Grade One was a poor excuse for a top level race but he’s obviously got a proper engine the way he won the Jewson. A five-length defeat to Flemenstar on his reappearance saw his unbeaten record go west over a trip that suited his highly talented opponent, although the major concern with this race in mind would be his preference for a sound surface. Three miles looks like it will bring out further improvement from the son of Robin Des Champs Like a couple of others in the line-up Sir Des Champs has the raw ability to scale the heights, however taking on Long Run in conditions favourable for Nicky Henderson’s horse he is going to need to extract every ounce of potential if the prize is going to head back over the Irish Sea. [NON RUNNER 22/12/12]
THE GIANT BOLSTER (David Bridgewater): Appeared to show his Gold Cup effort was no fluke by finishing fairly close to Silviniaco Conti and Long Run at Haydock. His RPR over three miles on soft ground in that race suggests he is a much better bet than his 14/1 price suggests- that’s even without considering that he should improve for the run. Did show improvement with every run last season and is still only seven-years-old – a real cliche but if he were trained by a household name then it’s unlikely he’d be nearly twice the price of Kauto Stone and three times the price of Cue Card! A cracking each way bet at the prices.
WISHFUL THINKING (Philip Hobbs): Completes the trio of Hobbs/Whateley horses and will probably finish second of the three while some way behind the rest. First try at three miles having never been further than 2m5f before and it’s very unlikely to unlock enough improvement to win this. Likely to be taken on for the lead by Junior and possibly Cue Card as well.
VERDICT: Incredibly difficult to oppose LONG RUN on the basis that he has improved for his reappearance in his last two campaigns and the unexposed horses in the race all appear to have probable issues with either the trip or the potentially deep ground. The Giant Bolster appears to have been underrated in the market at 14/1 in comparison to several horses quoted in single figures and looks an excellent each way bet if backing the 5/2 favourite is not your thing. It would be no surprise to see For Non Stop or Champion Court outrun their odds but the most likely to complete the tricast would be Riverside Theatre, while Grands Crus and Sir Des Champs have the ability to win this but there are doubts about fitness and the ground respectively about the best folding rowing machine.
Win: LONG RUN at 2-1 with Bet365, PaddyPower, StanJames
EW: THE GIANT BOLSTER at 12-1 with PaddyPower [/notification_box]