We’re now less than two weeks away from the highlight of many peoples Christmas.
Turkey and roasties, along with Christmas pud and Brandy sauce are all well and good, but it’s the King George VI Chase that has me counting down the number of sleeps with mounting anticipation.
Cheltenham’s Gold Cup and the Grand National at Aintree are rightly seen as two of the jewels in the National Hunt crown. But the sight of top-class chasers hurtling around Kempton, with every miniscule error magnified ten-fold in its significance, is for me, one of the greatest races of the winter. It’s not dissimilar to the Tingle Creek at Sandown, when horses are ‘at-it’ from the off, with the winner often being the slickest and fastest for longest.
Desert Orchid was a fabulous two-mile chaser, capable of winning a Tingle-Creek and a Victor Chandler Chase, yet won the King George at three miles in 1986, 88, 89 and 1990. One Man was another that had the speed and accuracy to win a Champion Chase at the minimum trip yet had enough stamina to take Kempton’s showpiece in 1995 and 96.
Many forget that the great Kauto Star won back to back Tingle Creeks before becoming a record-breaking five-time winner of the King George. Recent winners, Silviniaco Conti and Cue Card undoubtedly possess that crucial blend of pace and stamina to lift this prestigious Christmas prize.
Despite appearing to have many of the requisite qualities, Gary Moore has decided that the time is not yet right to take the plunge with his exciting young chaser Ar Mad. Moore said of the decision: “I spoke to the owner (Ashley Head) and he definitely won't be going to the King George. There'll be a lot of pace in the race and it will be a tough race for his first time over three miles, and I won't test him out in one of the best chase races of the season. The plan is to go to Ascot for the two-mile-five-furlong Grade One, and he might have a prep run beforehand.”
The fact that Ar Mad has only recently returned from injury will have undoubtedly had a bearing on the decision, and time is certainly on the young chaser’s side. Nevertheless, the prospect of Moore’s exciting front-runner going hoof to hoof with Coneygree around Kempton was incredibly appealing.
If Moore isn’t up for a King George clash, the same cannot be said for Sara Bradstock. She remains bullish and is more than hopeful of revenge over Cue Card after the Betfair Chase defeat at Haydock. “I can honestly stand here and say that I’m very frightened of Cue Card,” said the trainer, “but I’m not frightened of Thistlecrack. He is a beautiful, very talented, athletic horse, but he’s still going in the air, he’s still jumping rather than racing to me. He’ll learn, I’m sure he will, but I think it’s going to be a tall order to go a Coneygree type of pace and jump. He hasn’t done that yet, has he?”
Of Cue Card, Bradstock is fully aware that her fella needs to apply more pressure at Kempton, than he was able too at Haydock. He should strip fitter this time, and his jumping is a major asset. Slick over his fences, and a relentless galloper, he appears to tick King George boxes. “The only way we can beat Cue Card is by making it impossible for him to get to us cruising,” said Bradstock. “If you see him cruising up behind us, he’s going to beat us, because he’s got more toe, but what I want to see is him already having to start racing before he gets to us. Then we’re in for a battle, which I’m hopeful we can win.”
Tizzard was yesterday leaving options open, when speaking at a media event. He has the top two in the betting, and though money has come for Thistlecrack, the trainer may have been hinting at the novice option at Kempton. “While Thistlecrack would be comfortable racing at speed, it may lead such an inexperienced fencer into making mistakes,” said the trainer. “We just want to make sure it’s right for him. A flat-out gallop round Kempton, he could easily sit third or fourth, pick ’em up and beat ’em all. Or it could take him out of his comfort zone. We had a long discussion about it with Tom Scudamore. It’s not straightforward.”
It’s that intense pressure on the jumping that will surely cause Tizzard to go the novice route, leaving Cue Card to take on Coneygree in a sensational main event.