Despite having won the Ladbrokes King George VI Chase 12 times already, champion trainer Paul Nicholls believes his three runners in this year’s Boxing Day highlight give him one of his strongest teams yet.
Two of his representatives, Clan Des Obeaux (twice) and Frodon have won the Kempton race before, while Saint Calvados was running a big race last year before tiring in the straight to finish fourth when with Harry Whittington.
Of course Nicholls will always be linked to the Christmas highlight through the exploits of Kauto Star, who won five to go one better than Desert Orchid, but already his last of those was 10 years ago.
“We’ve been very lucky to win the King George 12 times with some amazing horses. It’s just a race we love having horses ready for. It’s the mid-season Gold Cup, a proper race,” said Nicholls.
“That day Kauto won his fifth was special. He’d come back to win his fourth Betfair Chase a month earlier and then to win a fifth King George, you’d almost say it will never be done again in our lifetimes, but who knows.
“I think this is up there with the strongest team we’ve had for the race, with two previous winners and a horse who ran so well in it last year, but it looks as good a race as it has for a long time as well.
“My view is that Clan and Frodon are the two to beat – they’ve won it before, they are the two champs and the.”
Frodon was a surprise winner last year under Bryony Frost but backed it up when going to Down Royal first time out this season to beat Galvin and Minella Indo in the Ladbrokes Champion Chase.
“Frodon is A1. He’s had a good prep. He had a quiet month after Down Royal but he’s done lots of work since. He went very nicely in a racecourse gallop last week with Clan Des Obeaux,” said Nicholls.
“He’s schooled well, looks great, he’s fresh. He’s a typical horse who you know when he’s in good shape, he’s ready for his life again, he’s in good order.
“To win races like the Ryanair and King George, to be tough and sound, you could always do with more horses like him. He’s so game and always gives his all, he’s been a fantastic servant.”
Clan Des Obeaux disappointed in the race 12 months ago, but won at Aintree and Punchestown in the spring and Nicholls has made the decision to go for the King George first time out this year.
“I’m very happy with him. We set out our stall not to go to Haydock for the Betfair Chase this year and we thought we’d go a different route and go fresh,” he said.
“Last year he had a very hard race in the Betfair Chase and he wasn’t quite at his best in the King George after it.
“I think last spring he was at his very best and the cheekpieces seemed to sharpen him up a bit, he’d got in the habit of racing lazily. He was very impressive at Aintree and then beat Al Boum Photo, a dual Gold Cup winner, on his home ground at Punchestown. That was probably a career-best.
“I’m just trying to give him the best possible chance and I think he’s a horse who is very dangerous when he’s very fresh and fit, with a nice prep, which he’s had.
“You know Frodon will jump and go a nice gallop and I dare say Harry (Cobden) will follow, you don’t want to be out the back door like he was last year. They’ll both run on their merits and be ridden accordingly. They’ll both be forward as they both made all in their last races. Clan is happy with a lead.”
The dark horse is Saint Calvados, also making his seasonal debut.
“He’s settled in well but he’s very good fresh and there weren’t too many options, I didn’t have him ready to give him a prep. He’s taken a bit of work to get used to our system but I’m very happy with him now. He galloped the other day behind the other two. Gavin (Sheehan) rode him and was thrilled,” said Nicholls.
“He ran well in the race last year but was just a bit sloppy with his jumping up the straight. Had he jumped the last three well, he’d have been a lot closer, so we’ve done a lot of work on his jumping.”
Summing up the race and the opposition, Nicholls said: “I thought Clan would be favourite, with his form at Aintree and Punchestown and being a dual winner. But there’s nothing between the two of them at their best. Frodon has always been quite a big price, I’m surprised he was as big as he was earlier in the week, but they look the two to beat.
“Obviously we know Minella Indo well, Frodon beat him at Down Royal. My view is that Cheltenham suits him very well, three and a quarter miles there is very different to three at Down Royal or Kempton. All Gold Cup winners are smart horses, but Kempton and Cheltenham are two different tracks.
“We won’t take him on with these two in the Gold Cup, but at Kempton it’s a different ball game and, in my view, it’s a home game for us.
“Willie’s (Mullins) horse (Asterion Forlonge) looked to be travelling well the other day (when falling in the John Durkan) but he does make plenty of mistakes and the one thing about the King George is you can’t afford that, you need everything to go right for you.
“He’s the unknown in the race, he’s obviously very talented and if he puts it all together he’ll be a threat to everybody.”