There’s something distinctly magical about the King George at Kempton.
Clearly the time of year has a bearing on the character of the race. With Christmas festivities in full swing, the event has something of a celebratory feel. The track and the trip also lend themselves to the drama. The race is always run at a high tempo, and any horse hoping to claim the prize has to possess a high cruising speed coupled with the ability to jump with pin point accuracy. The King George is the three mile version of the Tingle Creek.
Many legends of the sport have taken this prestigious event. The mighty Arkle won in 1965; Desert Orchid dominated in the late 80’s with four victories, and Kauto Star created history in 2011 when winning the Christmas Spectacular for the fifth time at the age of 11.
The profile of many winners is understandably similar. Dessie won a Tingle Creek and a Victor Chandler during his spell at the top of the sport. A bold front running style, relentlessly applying pressure to his pursuers, he was a truly outstanding racehorse.
Kauto may not have been a trailblazer like the famous grey, but his ability to travel beautifully through the race, whatever the pace, proved such a crucial asset. At Kempton, he would usually take charge turning for home, before stretching clear of his exhausted opponents.
His win in 2009 was a perfect example. Nacarat, another talented grey, had led at a scorching gallop. One by one, the field had faded out of contention, until only Nicholls’ star remained in touch. But like Dessie before him, Kauto had the pace of a top class two mile chaser, with the reserves of stamina to last a strongly run three. He breezed past the fading Nacarat before galloping clear with the opposition a distance adrift.
One Man was another terrific grey, capable of winning a Champion Chase at two miles and yet having the fortitude to win back to back King George’s. Yet another that travelled through a race with ease, before being delivered with a challenge when the rest were crying ‘no more’.
So what of this year’s challengers? We certainly know that both Cue Card and Silviniaco Conti have what it takes to go close. Paul Nicholls’ dual winner is likely to attempt to force the pace. He won with something to spare last Christmas, but a year earlier appeared in all kinds of trouble before Cue Card faded into second spot late on.
Strangely enough, of the two, you would have to say that Tizzard’s revitalized chaser probably has the ideal profile for this race. He was a classy two mile chaser earlier in his career, second to Sprinter Sacre in the Arkle of 2012. He won a Haldon Gold Cup at Exeter by a country mile, and destroyed a strong field in the Ryanair of 2013. If the breathing operation has truly worked and if he can hit the level of performance he achieved at Haydock in last month’s Betfair Chase, he surely has to go close.
Al Ferof has been here before, though not under the guidance of Dan Skelton. He’s lacked the gears to go with Silviniaco and Cue Card in previous King Georges, and though he impressed first time out at Huntingdon this is a totally different proposition. He could again run into a place, but it would be a surprise if at the age of 10 he suddenly developed the ability to win such a race, especially in what appears to be a star-studded renewal.
Gigginstown may have several entrants, including race favourite Don Cossack. He’s looked outstanding so far this season, with stunning wins at both Punchestown and Down Royal. He also defeated Djakadam and Cue Card in a pair of Grade 1’s at the end of the last campaign, though the former had been involved in that gruelling Gold Cup, whilst Cue Card was clearly some way short of his best.
The race that fills me with doubt over ‘The Don’ is his failure in the Ryanair Chase at Cheltenham. He had his fair share of bad luck that day, but at no point did he look like getting close to Uxizandre. He was outpaced coming down the hill and only when meeting the rising ground did he look likely to challenge. I could be wrong, and Lord knows I’ve been wrong many times before, but my gut tells me that he will struggle to lay-up with the likes of Cue Card and Vautour, and that he will be forced into crucial errors. I just can’t see the King George at Kempton suiting him.
Smad Place looks set to take his chance. The Hennessy winner will look to emulate those famous greys mentioned earlier in the piece. He was spectacular at Newbury but I find it hard to imagine that he is quick enough to lead this field such a merry dance.
And so to Vautour for the all-conquering Mullins team. His win in the JLT at Cheltenham in March was something to behold. He won a Supreme Novices’ Hurdle a year earlier in devastating fashion. He appears to have oodles of pace and if Ruby and Willie are to be believed, is probably one of the best to ever be housed at Closutton. He has to prove he stays the trip, and he has to put behind him a less than emphatic performance at Ascot last time. However, he looks to have the right kind of profile, and although I thought the same of Champagne Fever last year, this fella could well prove to be the 'Real Deal'.
It’s a sensational looking renewal with a stellar line-up in keeping with such a prestigious event. Forget the turkey, the Christmas pudding, those presents under the tree and even the Queen’s speech. The real meaning of Christmas can be found at Kempton every year when the tapes go up for the King George VI Chase.