The King George VI Chase from Kempton is the highlight of the Christmas period, and one of the most prestigious events of the winter.
Its roll of honour is the stuff of legends, simply oozing quality, jam-packed with steeplechasing heroes. Jumping goliaths, Mill House and Arkle, won the race in the 60’s. In the 1970’s Pendil and Captain Christy were simply sensational. In the early 80’s the Kempton masses were thrilled by Silver Buck, Wayward Lad and Burrough Hill Lad. It was then the turn of the glorious grey Dessie.
Desert Orchid dominated the Kempton Christmas cracker in the latter part of the eighties, with four victories. Only in 1987 did the bold front-runner find one too good, when beaten by the Francois Doumen-trained Nupsala. He was taken-on for the lead for much of that renewal, and arguably set the race up for the French raider.
Doumen was back again at the start of the 90’s with The Fellow, followed closely by a quick-fire double from another wonderful grey, One Man. Best Mate added his name to the wondrous list with victory in 2002, and Kicking King struck for Ireland in 2004 and 2005. Then came Kempton’s greatest, Kauto Star. Five victories from 2006 to 2011 saw him surpass the achievements of Dessie. He truly is Kempton’s King George King.
Last year’s race went to Thistlecrack, a horse with the potential to emulate some of those former greats. A novice at the time, he was scintillating throughout the three-mile contest. It was a display of pace and authority that left his talented opponents powerless. The rigours of a King George aren’t for every staying chaser, but it proved ideal for Thistlecrack. Injury cut short his first season over fences, and his return over hurdles at Newbury proved underwhelming. Nevertheless, the sounds from Team Tizzard are positive, and if he’s back to the form of 12 months ago, he’ll prove hard to beat.
The favourite for Boxing Day’s showpiece is the Nicky Henderson-trained Might Bite. He too looked sensational at Kempton 12 months ago. That is, until a final-fence blunder sent him crashing to the turf when clear of the field in the Kauto Star Novices’ Chase. He put that mishap behind him when winning at Cheltenham and Aintree, and returned to action in November with a comfortable victory at Sandown.
He looks hugely talented, though this is by far his toughest test to date. He got the better of Whisper as a novice chaser, and you’d fancy he has the potential to maintain that advantage. Whisper was beaten 30-lengths and 46-lengths by Thistlecrack over hurdles, and though comparison of codes isn’t always reliable, I’d fancy Might Bite needs to improve a ton to beat a match-fit Tizzard stable-star.
Bristol De Mai is second-best in the betting, having demolished the opposition in the Betfair Chase at Haydock. In testing ground he absolutely rocks, but can he prove as dominant on a sounder surface? There’s also a feeling that Haydock brings out the best in the Twiston-Davies chaser, and his record at the track certainly supports that theory. He came up short in the Gold Cup back in March, and again failed to spark at Aintree the following month. He may be a vastly improved horse after a summer in the field, but I’m not convinced. I also have issues with his jumping, which will be severely tested in a ‘full-throttle’ King George. Unless we get a substantial amount of rain over the weekend, he’s not for me.
I’m anticipating a huge run from Fox Norton. He was runner-up in the Champion Chase and filled the same spot in the Tingle Creek earlier this month. The tempo of this race should prove ideal, though whether his stamina will last into the latter stages is the crucial question. He’s never looked a true two-miler, always running-on strongly at the end of such events. Arguably his best performance to-date came in the Melling Chase at Aintree over 2m4f, when running away from Sub Lieutenant. He’d looked out-paced in that until getting on top in the latter stages. He certainly wasn’t stopping at the line.
Though Whisper ran a cracker in the Ladbrokes Trophy (Hennessy), I cannot see him turning the tables on Might Bite. He was clearly second-best to his stable companion last season, and I cannot see that changing. I’ve always thought that Whisper, though clearly a talented horse, is just shy of the very best. He may well run admirably, but I’d be shocked if he wins.
Repeat victories are common in the King George, and I’m convinced that a back-to-his-best Thistlecrack will be too hot to handle. Might Bite is a chaser of huge potential and may well pick up the pieces should Tizzard’s star fail to shine. Of the remainder, I fancy Fox Norton to run a huge race at a trip that should be to his liking.
Enjoy this Christmas cracker. And best of luck to those having a punt.