As must always be the case, dear reader, after big pre-season races, the ante-post markets for the Cheltenham Festival events receives a rare old shake down.
On Saturday, Kempton hosted its two premium Boxing Day fixtures, the Christmas Hurdle and King George VI Chase.
Favoured for the two events were Binocular, last season's Champion Hurdler, and four-time King George winner (as well as two time Gold Cup winner), Kauto Star.
History will have already dictated to you that Binocular won readily enough in the former, and Kauto finished a respectable third behind Long Run in the latter, Nicky Henderson's up and coming chasing import.
But what does Kempton's Christmas (or, in this case, January) form tell us with regards to the Champion Hurdle and Gold Cup at Cheltenham in March? Let's mull the deeper lessons of history to learn more.
In fact, each of the Christmas Hurdle winners who went on to contest the Champion Hurdle in the last ten years were beaten in the latter race. This list includes Go Native, the last Christmas Hurdle winner, who was sent off 11/4 favourite at Cheltenham.
However, contrast that with beaten horses in the Christmas Hurdle who go on to win in the Blue Riband at the Festival.
Binocular was only third in the Christmas Hurdle last year, but was simply imperious up Cleeve Hill come March.
Before him, Punjabi fell behind Harchibald on Boxing Day 2008 before winning the Champion Hurdle in 2009.
We then have to go all the way back to 2001/2 find the next Champion Hurdle winner to have run in the Christmas Hurdle. Hors La Loi III could finish no better than third to Landing Light at Kempton before finally lowering Istabraq's crown at the Festival.
So the message is clear - be extremely wary of Christmas Hurdle winners in the Champion Hurdle. They often go off very short prices, but the totally different course constitution and pace in the race makes for a contrasting test of a horse's racing talents.
Placed horses in the Christmas Hurdle have a decent record in the Champion, which might imply a second glance at the form of Donald McCain's Overturn (25/1 for the March showpiece) and Alan Fleming's Starluck (50/1).
The latter does seem to be a poor battler but could run into a place off his high cruising speed, and the former will stay well, so McCain looks to have a strong hand for the race with Peddlers Cross in there pitching too.
Turning our attentions to the Gold Cup, and looking at previous King George and Gold Cup winners, we learn the following:
Best Mate, Kicking King and Kauto Star himself have all won both the King George and Cheltenham Gold Cups in recent years. In fact, between these three horses, they possess SEVEN King George's and SIX Gold Cups!
That's quite an incredible trivia stat, and leans heavily towards the fact that Kempton King George form does seem to transfer to Cheltenham.
Why might this seemingly counter-intuitive (in light of the hurdle contrast) situation be?
Well, I suspect the key determinant is the stronger pace at which the King George is typically contested. It could also be that we have borne witness to more than our fair share of superb chasing talents in that time. There's no doubt that both the King George and Gold Cup require a high class combination of speed and stamina and, whilst a fair few beasts own one or the other of these two attributes, it's a rare breed that has both.
Can Long Run be the new Kauto Star? And what of Kauto Star himself?
Well, the answer to the former question is a resounding 'yes', with a whispered 'but maybe not yet'. And to the latter, I suspect it may be the start of the inevitable decline that all of us endure when our limbs aren't quite as agile and our engine not quite as feisty as once was the case. Kauto owes nobody anything and whatever happens, I dearly hope that they make a decision to retire him sooner rather than later, when the times comes (probably after the Gold Cup).
Long Run, remarkably, is still a six year old and, while both Kicking King and Kauto Star won their first King George's at that age, in real terms they were a year older, as Long Run has only just turned six, whereas the two jumping legends were about to turn seven.
The last, and only, five year old to win the King George was Manicou in 1950!
A six year old hasn't won the Gold Cup since the majestic Mill House in 1963 and, even though Long Run is clearly a monstrously precocious talent, I'd be loathe to take a short price about him winning this year. That said, he's an obvious Gold Cup winner of the future, and I suspect 2012 may well be his year.
As I've written before, there are chinks in all the top runners' armour, and it could be a shock result in the Gold Cup. Certainly, I'd be against most of the top horses in the betting, with a small saver on the day on Imperial Commander.
Make of the weekend's results what you will, but the Geegeez management summary is this:
- Beware the Christmas Hurdle winner in the Champion Hurdle, but don't be afraid to play one of the placed horses with a touch more stamina for the Blue Riband
- Note the strong translation of King George winning form to the Gold Cup.
I'm away skiing in Borovets this week with my brother, missus, and some friends, but will be staying in touch, as best I can, and will even try to capture some mountain monkeying around for you in glorious high definition technicolour (or at least on video).
The pistes await me... 😀