The excitement is building and there aren't many more sleeps to go. No, not Christmas Day, I'm looking forward to the King George, the feature race over the Christmas period!
The King George
Betfair Chase winner Cue Card is back for another crack at this race having proven now that three miles holds no fears for him. We were issued a warning from his trainer Colin Tizzard in the week that some of his horses are suffering from a low grade virus. Having been involved with racehorses for many years now, I know that this is an incredibly frustrating problem to have, and one that most stables suffer with at some stage of the season. It's a bit like kids at school, once one of them goes down with the bug it spreads like wildfire and very few are exempt. Even more infuriating is that some, if not most, horses show no signs of illness until they get to the track and run below par. Quite often all the tests in the world will draw a blank and you just have to sit and suffer the lean spell until it passes.
A strike rate of seven per cent in October, 11 per cent in November and just five per cent so far this month would indicate that the bug is still working it's ugly way through the Tizzard string and I hope it is gone post-haste. It was interesting to hear that the trainer feels that Cue Card may have already had it and the way he ran in the Haldon Gold Cup you wouldn't argue with him. If that was the case, then he showed no ill effects at Haydock and should be fine and dandy for this race too.
The King George looks as good a race as you will see.
Quotes of the week
Regardless of all of that, I'm a big fan of Al Ferof. The grey came back from injury with a win in an uncompetitive race at Ascot, but at least that showed us that all was well with him physically and mentally. That race appeared to take little out of him so he should still be fresh and well for this. His trainer Paul Nicholls has a couple of chances to take this prize as he also runs Silviniaco Conti who was third in that Betfair Chase behind Cue Card and Dynaste. He was second here in the Feltham a couple of years ago so the track holds no fears. The rain that has been around will be right up his street as it will make this more of a test of stamina and he should have improved for his Haydock outing.
On to Dynaste then and you couldn't help but be impressed by his fine second in the Betfair. That was his first run against the big boys of the chasing world and he ran an incredible race. Back to Kempton, the scene of his Feltham triumph last year, he could easily win this.
Last year's winner Long Run has to prove he is as good as he was after poor runs at Wetherby and Haydock this season. Many French imports can peak early and I hope this horse isn't one of them. Although he blundered badly at Wetherby, he could be more of a Grand National horse this year and although it seems foolish to discount a horse who has won this race twice before and also finished second, I can't have him this year.
It's Al Ferof for me on his first real test against championship horses outside novice company and I think his trainer Paul Nicholls has two outstanding chances with him and Silviniaco Conti.
Staying at Kempton on Boxing Day and we should enjoy a thrilling Christmas Hurdle if all goes to plan. The New One could take on My Tent or Yours and the former is likely to go off favourite if he does. He has taken the step up to big school in his stride and has so far beaten Rock on Ruby and Zarkandar in his two starts this season. It was good to see him pull away from the latter earlier this month in the International Hurdle as at one point I was a bit concerned that might not be the case.
Despite his perfect record this season I'm going to go with Fighting Fifth winner My Tent or Yours. He was impressive at Newcastle, but then if he's to be a Champion Hurdle contender he had to be. You can't help but look to the form of his Supreme Novices' second, a race that was out of the top drawer and although they all have Hurricane Fly to beat at the festival, which is going to be tough given his remarkable achievements, they deserve their place in the line up.
Paddy Power Chase
Moving on to the 27th and the focus moves to Ireland for a couple of very decent chases. The Grade 1 Paddy Power Chase market is likely to be headed by Arvika Ligeonniere who was an easy winner of the John Durkan last time out. His chance was obviously aided by the early departure of Sir des Champs that day, but he was the most likely of the Mullins horses to win the race anyway and he didn't have to work hard to beat the only other runner Rubi Light.
He could take on Sizing Europe here, but he is the elder statesman up against the young buck and I'm going with youth on this occasion. It will be interesting to see how Kid Cassidy fares as he steps up to this grade for the first time. He did beat Sire de Grugy at Cheltenham last time out mind you and that form hasn't worked out too badly has it?
The Dial-A-Bet Chase
He is one of two runners at the meeting for Nicky Henderson who also has Bobs Worth in the Lexus the following day. The Dial-A-Bet Chase is a wide open handicap and as declarations are yet to be made it's even harder to call. A horse I'm keeping my eye on though is Mad Brian. It's significant that trainer Gillian Callaghan has also entered him in the Grade 1 Topaz Novice Chase a couple of days later and although he is inexperienced, if he runs here he is worthy of great respect. He ran an excellent race to be second in the Troytown last time out on only his third start over fences and he is only 6lbs higher here. His latest run should have given him more valuable experience and he should run well if he lines up in this three mile contest.
The Welsh National
The Welsh National on the 28th could be the target for Tidal Bay, although he is also in the Lexus on the same day. Despite winning the Lexus last year trainer Paul Nicholls feels that the 3m 5½f at Chepstow could be just the job for him and at his age he won't be getting any quicker. He is the sort of talented quirky horse who could stay on like a train past tired horses in the Chepstow marathon and he also has that touch of class that should see him travel comfortably for most of the way.
The Lexus should be contested by some of the best chasers from both sides of the Irish Sea. Bobs Worth ran a shocker in the Betfair Chase but he looks likely to make his first journey to Ireland in a bid to bounce back if he works well over the weekend. He has been very lightly campaigned so far, but we will hopefully see plenty more of him this season. I used to love seeing the best horses running regularly in days of old. Connections weren't afraid of defeat and they won the hearts of the racing public as a result. Nowadays some championship level horses seem to be campaigned much more sparingly and whilst I can see why, it will be great to see more of Nicky Henderson's Gold Cup winner this term. I'm sure Irish racegoers will be keen to get a look at him too, but you have to hope that whatever the issue was at Haydock it's behind him now.
Another horse on a retrieval mission for a different reason is Sir Des Champs who took an awful looking fall in the John Durkan Memorial last time out. He was soon back on his feet, and as the fall was early on in the race he didn't gallop too far. For a horse who has his jumping problems that was the first time he has failed to complete in 18 starts. He was fourth in this last year where jumping errors let him down again and although that is a major flaw in his make up it didn't stop him from running a great race to be second in the Gold Cup and I'm going to go with him once again.
Finally, a word on the Ryanair Hurdle at Leopardstown on the 29th. Hurricane Fly is going to be a short priced favourite to win his 18th Grade 1 race. His 17th came in the Morgiana where he wasn't as impressive as you'd have liked for the champion he is. He looked a bit burly beforehand and there's no doubt Willie Mullins will have left plenty to work on. Does that make him vulnerable? I would say so, but it's hard to knock him when he keeps winning these top class races.
I'm looking forward to seeing Jezki again and maybe this could be the day we are impressed with him. As I don't fancy taking odds on about The Fly, I'll be happy enough to take him on with Jezki who has won both his starts this season. He has bypassed one clash with Hurricane Fly this season but this should be an interesting clash as they both have races under their belts this season. Jezki won the Hatton's Grace last time out and although he didn't take your breath away he got the job done. With Our Conor also a likely starter they will all face a proper test and I'm looking forward to seeing them all in action.
So, I'm marking the sleeps down on my calendar and I'd like to take this opportunity to wish you all a Merry Christmas and a happy, healthy and prosperous New Year. Thanks for taking time to read the blog and let's hope we end the year with some nice winners!
Al Ferof in the King George @ 4/1 with Sky Bet
My Tent or Yours in the Christmas Hurdle
Arvika Ligeonniere in the Paddy Power Chase @ 6/4 with Sky Bet
Mad Brian in the Dial-A-Bet Chase @ 12/1 with Sky Bet
Tidal Bay in the Welsh National @ 14/1 with Sky Bet
Sir Des Champs in the Lexus Chase
Jezki in the Ryanair Hurdle