As the winter solstice marks the moment when we make the turn towards longer days, the post-Christmas race meetings are the time when the quest for Cheltenham glory begins in earnest. Early season skirmishing is forgotten as every race seems to have a bearing on the greatest meeting of them all.
Though Leopardstown dominates the domestic scene it would be unforgivably parochial to deny that the most storied and best race of the holiday season takes place in Kempton Park on what the spectators there call Boxing Day.
The King George VI Chase has not always been blessed with fields to match its history but this year’s renewal promises a terrific contest. Last year’s winner Might Bite lost little caste while subsequently finishing second in an epic Cheltenham Gold Cup but finished last when returning from a 226-day break in the Betfair Chase at Haydock last month.
His main rivals will include two intriguing horses whose longest lay-offs have been enforced by injury. The appropriately named Waiting Patiently looked a good bet for last year’s Ryanair Chase at Cheltenham before withdrawing and Ruth Jefferson’s talented performer will run for the first time since February.
Two years ago Thistlecrack became one of the shortest priced ante-post favourites in years for the Gold Cup after winning the King George. Colin Tizzard’s horse missed that festival and this year’s through injury but showed enough when finishing third in the Betfair Chase to suggest he might be returning to his old self. Betfair Chase winner Bristol De Mai and Politologue, who impressed when winning at Ascot last month, can’t be discounted in a race sure to provide pointers for the Gold Cup.
The Arkle Chase picture may become clearer after the Racing Post Novices Chase on the same day in Leopardstown. Footpad last year and Douvan in 2015 both completed the double and this year’s Leopardstown favourite Mengli Khan is second favourite for the Cheltenham race. Gordon Elliott’s horse, third in last year’s Supreme Novices Hurdle, looked a born chaser when winning by 10 lengths at Punchestown though he should be tested by Willie Mullins’ Voix Du Reve who’s scored two impressive wins since turning to the bigger jumps this winter.
Footpad remains the only likely challenger to the magnificent Altior in the Champion Chase and there was no more impressive winner at this year’s Cheltenham than Mullins’ horse. He suffered an unexpected setback when falling on his seasonal debut at Naas but will take all the beating in Thursday’s Paddy Power Rewards Club Chase. His main rival could be Enda Bolger’s Ballyoisin who caught the eye when winning the Fortria Chase at Navan by 23 lengths.
The Future Champions Novice Hurdle on the same day hasn’t lived up to its name in recent seasons though it does number Jezki, Hurricane Fly and Istabraq among its alumni.
There’ll be a lot of interest in Mullins’ Tornado Flyer, third in the Champion Bumper last year and an easy winner on his hurdles debut at Punchestown. Another Mullins tyro Sancta Simona should also figure while Joseph O’Brien sends out the useful Triplicate, second to the outstanding Quick Grabim in the Royal Bond Novice Hurdle at Fairyhouse.
Last season’s outstanding novice hurdler Samcro has found life much tougher than anyone expected this term with a shock loss at Down Royal followed by a comprehensive trouncing at the hands of Buveur D’Air in the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle. So there’ll be a lot of attention given to his performance on Saturday in the Ryanair Hurdle where Gordon Elliott’s horse may come up against Mullins’ Laurina who is herself a fascinating prospect after four surpassingly easy wins as a novice.
The winner of this clash would seem the best bet to prevent a Buveur D’Air Champion Hurdle hat-trick. Nicky Henderson’s great horse runs in Kempton’s Christmas Hurdle on St Stephen’s Day and will win unless struck by a drone.
We still haven’t seen Gold Cup favourite Presenting Percy this season but Pat Kelly’s prodigy might chance the Savills Chase on Friday at Leopardstown if the ground is soft enough. Should he do so reigning champion Road to Respect would provide stern opposition while Punchestown Gold Cup winner Bellshill and JLT Chase champion Shattered Love can’t be discounted in the dependably exciting race formerly known as the Lexus.
Meanwhile, they’ll be having their own excellent holiday meeting in Limerick where the local fans will no doubt be mentioning from time to time that they’re All-Ireland champions.
There’s also that slog of slogs, the Welsh Grand National, which takes place at Chepstow on Thursday and has been won by two of the last seven Cheltenham Gold Cup winners. Sue Smith’s Vintage Clouds is being talked about as a big contender for the Aintree equivalent and might be worth a look here. It’s the most wonderful time of the year.
Sunday Indo Sport