While still digesting a mountain of turkey and sprouts, it’s now time to turn our attention to the true ‘Meaning of Christmas’, which all jump racing fans know to be Kempton on Boxing Day.
I’ll apologise immediately to people of a religious persuasion, but my church of choice is always a racecourse on a ‘stellar’ race-day. Newbury and Haydock in November, Sandown in December, Cheltenham whenever there’s a meeting and then of course Kempton during the Christmas period, are all times when hope springs eternal. The gathering of the great and good of the sport is always an occasion to rejoice.
Today’s meeting draws the major players from both sides of the Irish Sea. The Champion trainer of Ireland, Willie Mullins, sends over several of his finest, including Champion Hurdle contender Faugheen, and a potential Gold Cup candidate in Champagne Fever. All today’s visitors to our shores are owned by the Ricci’s, who’s wealth of equine talent is fast resembling the Real Madrid footballing squad.
County Carlow’s finest is set to do battle with the current top triad of British National Hunt Racing, in Hobbs, Henderson and Nicholls. Clearly other trainers will have a say in many of the races on a stunning looking card, but what I’m trying to emphasize is the sheer power of today’s Kempton contenders.
The two showpiece events are without doubt the Christmas Hurdle and the King George VI Chase. Both have been won by the greats of our wonderful sport. Kempton’s famous hurdle has gone to the likes of Birds Nest, Dawn Run and Binocular. In recent times the grouping of Henderson, McCoy and JP McManus has dominated. Winners of the last four renewals, the combination cannot make it five in a row today, but Seven Barrows and the Champion jockey are both involved. Indeed the promising young hurdler Sign Of A Victory is thought by many to have a live chance of success.
This race is often won by the quickest horse rather than the most tenacious. The track favours slick jumping and a horse with gears, as opposed to the likes of Cheltenham where a horse has to battle up the famous hill. Paul Nicholls has the very promising Irving in the race. Already a winner at the track, he is a strong traveller with a smart turn of hoof. The track and conditions should certainly suit, but the question is whether he can land a blow on race favourite Faugheen.
Touted as the future Champion hurdler in waiting, Ruby Walsh will be on board the latest Irish hurdling sensation. He remains unbeaten, but this is undoubtedly his stiffest test to date. He spent much of last season running at distances from two and a half to three miles. I would expect him to be ridden prominently with Ruby attempting to draw the sting out of his opponents. It’s a truly fascinating race and the finish could be far more exciting than many expect.
And so to the main event and a repeat of last year’s thrilling clash between Silviniaco Conti and Cue Card. The latter looked to have the race won 12 months ago, but was outstayed on soft ground by Paul Nicholls’ talented staying chaser. He added his name to an illustrious list of winners, which includes Kauto Star, Best Mate, Desert Orchid, Burrough Hill Lad and the mighty Arkle. It’s impossible to find another roll of honour to match that of the King George at Kempton.
Many of those greats became multiple Boxing Day winners. Silniniaco is the favourite to do just that, though the drying ground is a worry for some. Thought to favour more testing conditions there’s a chance he could be vulnerable to a quicker horse, though this race is always a test of both speed and endurance.
Champagne Fever has been heavily backed during the week and could yet challenge for favouritism come race-time. He has the pedigree to have major claims being a Supreme Hurdle winner and an Arkle Chase runner-up. Kicking King has a very similar profile before winning this famous race on two occasions.
Philip Hobbs is in the midst of one of his greatest seasons, and much of that is thanks to the flying form of his older brigade. Menorah and Wishfull Thinking have already had a terrific winter and few would be surprised to see one or indeed both right in the mix turning for home.
David Pipe sends Ryanair winner Dynaste into battle. The sounder surface is sure to improve his chances of success having had his best two performances on good ground at Cheltenham and Aintree earlier this year. He does however have a habit of coming off second best to the Paul Nicholls trained favourite.
This pulsating race is always a thrill to watch, with horses ‘going at it’ from the drop of the flag. Whoever has the class, the speed and the guts to hit the line first will have earned his place on Jump racings most exulted Christmas list.