The King George VI chase at Kempton (3.10pm on Boxing Day) is second only to the Gold Cup in the jumps’ racing calendar. This year’s renewal presents a fascinating challenge for punters.
Ten go to post led by trainer Nicky Henderson’s Long Run, the 2/1 favourite in the betting to regain the title that he lost to Kauto Star last year.
Long Run’s task looks easier now that some of his most dangerous looking rivals have been lost to injury or withdrawn in fear of the testing ground conditions. The going at Kempton has been changed to soft and heavy in places. If he is at his best, Long Run is a worthy favourite. It’s the considerable uncertainty around the ‘if’ that makes this such an interesting race.
Long Run is only a seven-year-old but he does not seem to be the same horse that won this race two seasons ago and then the 2011 Cheltenham Gold Cup. He ended last season with a disappointing third in the Gold Cup having started the 7/4 favourite.
He began this season as the 11/8 favourite in the Betfair Chase at Haydock in November. It was a field of just five and he jumped much better than at Cheltenham but was beaten pretty easily by two and a half lengths by Paul Nicholls’ Silviniaco Conti. His rating is now 10lb lower than when he appeared to be in his prime. Have his 13 starts over obstacles as a three and four year old caused a premature decline?
Colin Tizzard’s stable star, the six-year-old Cue Card (11/2) is an interesting contender. The yard is in good form and there have been glowing reports of Cue Card’s work at home recently. Unlike Long Run, he has started this season in style. His last run and seasonal debut was in the Haldon Gold Cup (Handicap) Chase over 2m1½f at Exeter in November. It could not have been more impressive. He not only put in a faultless round of jumping but put 26 lengths between himself and his closest pursuer, Paul Nicholls’ Edgardo Sol at level weights. Philip Hobbs’ Menorah was a further eight lengths behind in third.
Cue Card’s ability is proven. His stamina beyond two and a half miles is not. The style in which he finishes his races suggests that he could handle another four furlongs. He has yet to encounter heavy going on a racecourse but has posted a couple of victories on soft. This will be his first visit to Kempton. A flat track for his first attempt at three miles seems ideal. Potentially gruelling ground conditions do not.
David Bridgwater was equally bullish about his King George hope, the seven-year-old The Giant Bolster (10/1) on Saturday. He is apparently ‘flying’ at home. He was the surprise second in the Gold Cup in March, finishing two and a quarter lengths behind the ill-fated Synchronised with Long Run three quarters of length behind him.
The placings were reversed on his seasonal debut in the aforementioned Betfair Chase at Haydock last month. He finished in third place, four and half lengths behind Long Run. The Giant Bolster is proven over the distance and his jumping appears to be much more trustworthy than it used to be. He has not encountered heavy going since 2010 when he started the 13/8 favourite in a 2m6f Novice Hurdle at Fontwell as a five year old. He was a disappointing third.
This will be The Giant Bolster’s first experience of Kempton. He has not run on a right-handed track for years. He is a thoroughly likeable, game little horse but he will need to grow wings to get past some of his classier rivals unless they are below par or unable to handle conditions on the day.
In any staying chase you have to have a look at the Paul Nicholls contingent. Since the more fancied Al Ferof was ruled out with a tendon injury, Ditcheat’s hopes now rest with the six-year-old Kauto Stone (8/1).
This half brother to Kauto Star is yet to show anything like his famous relative’s ability but he made a good start to the season, winning the Champion Chase at Down Royal in November. It was his first attempt at three miles. He beat Mouse Morris’ First Lieutenant by a length on ground described as yielding to soft. He is not the classiest horse in the race and is rated 10lb lower than the market leader but he should not be inconvenienced by testing conditions. He ran mostly in the mud in France before joining Paul Nicholls. The assistance of Ruby Walsh has to be to his advantage and the horse is on the upgrade.
Nicky Henderson’s second string, the eight year old Riverside Theatre (5/1) is rated just 2lb lower than his possibly over-rated stable mate. He is definitely at his best when fresh and he could not be any fresher. This will be his first run of the season and Henderson has won with him first time out in his past two seasons. He succeeded in the Grade 1 Betfair Ascot Chase in his seasonal debut in February 2012 but was obviously wrong when pulling up in his last run at Aintree in April.
Riverside Theatre has run 18 times and five of those were at Kempton. He relishes the track and has only been beaten there once, by Long Run by 12 lengths in the belated 2010 King George. He does not appear to be inconvenienced by soft going and has the assistance of Barry Geraghty.
David Pipe’s seven-year-old Grands Crus (9/1)has tons of ability andlooked to be a horse with a big future until the beginning of this season. He started the 2m4f Paddy Power Gold Cup (Handicap) Chase at Cheltenham in November as the 7/4 favourite but weakened quickly and pulled up two out.
He has had a breathing operation since and is reported to be working well at home. Whilst seeming healthy at home is encouraging, no one will know if the breathing op has done the job until the closing stages of the race.
On the positive side, he won at Kempton on King George day last year, in the three mile Feltham Novices’ Chase in a faster time than that day’s King George. He beat the now rising star, Paul Nicholls’ Silviniaco Conti, by over two lengths. If back to his best, Grands Crus would be a serious contender. The statistics on the success of wind operations are not good enough for us to recommend him here.
King George Tips Verdict
The question marks hanging over many of the runners make this a tough call. Long Run might well prove his doubters wrong but he provides no value at 2/1. If the conditions were better I would be tempted by Cue Card but, with more rain on the way, RIVERSIDE THEATRE has to be our pick to win at a best price of 11/2 with Bet365, Betfred, Blue Square or Coral.