The Boxing Day meeting at Kempton Park is the highlight of Christmas for racing fans and the three-mile King George VI Chase tops the stellar card (3.10pm). This renewal is more open than the betting market suggests and ground conditions on the day could prove decisive.
It’s easy to see why Paul Nicholls’ (pictured) Silviniaco Conti is the 5/2 favourite. He was the impressive winner of the Betfair Chase in November, pricking his ears after beating Philip Hobbs’ Menorah by two lengths at Haydock. Yes, he won cosily but that was over 3 miles 1 furlong on soft ground. He was also wearing cheekpieces for the first time – but that may be a red herring. The significant factors were the testing ground and the extra furlong that both played to his strengths.
Many punters probably remember that this French-bred eight-year-old by Dom Alco beat Cue Card by over three lengths here last year – but not that that was on his preferred soft ground. Silviniaco Conti’s form suggests that he needs more than three miles to win on a slightly faster surface. He was a well beaten favourite when he last tackled three miles on good to soft – back in February 2012 at Ascot as a novice chaser.
Nicholls openly admits that ‘all he does is stay’ and that more rain would be helpful. The going at Kempton was described as good to soft on Christmas Eve and the weather forecast suggests that it should dry out rather than deepen before the day. If the forecast is correct he offers little appeal at his current price.
The 9/2 second favourite Champagne Fever, also comes into the race on the back of a comfortable win. This striking grey scored by six lengths for trainer Willie Mullins, staying on strongly at Clonmel in a Grade 2 chase over two and a half miles on heavy ground in mid November on his seasonal debut. He also won first time out in the past two seasons – but was beaten on both his reappearances doing little to inspire confidence here.
This seven-year-old only scored once last season, in a two and a half mile beginners’ chase at Punchestown in November. He was found wanting next time out in the Grade 1 Racing Post Novices’ Chase at Leopardstown on Boxing Day. He started as the odds-on favourite and was beaten 14 lengths into third. A significant blunder two from home did not help his cause. In his third run he was very unlucky to be beaten by a head in the Arkle Trophy Chase at the Cheltenham Festival. That was over two miles on good to soft. His fourth and final run in a two mile Grade 1 at Punchestown in May was disappointing and can probably be discounted.
Whilst there are question marks after his first season chasing, Champagne Fever is undoubtedly a class act. He scored twice at the highest level over hurdles, beating My Tent Or Yours and Jezki in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival last year.
We haven’t seen him run under rules over three miles but better ground than he is accustomed to encountering in Ireland looks likely to suit him. He won the Champion Bumper at the Cheltenham Festival in 2012 on good ground. He may deliver a decent performance but, with his stamina unproven and dismal record second time out, his price also looks distinctly ungenerous, despite the assistance of Ruby Walsh.
Vastly superior value appears to be offered by Colin Tizzard’s Cue Card (7/1). This eight-year-old son of King’s Theatre is rated just 3lb lower than Silviniaco Conti and is an obvious beneficiary of less testing ground. Punters have understandably lost faith in him after his two starts this season. He was sent off as the favourite in the Haldon Gold Cup Chase at Exeter and in the Betfair Chase and was well beaten in both, finishing fourth by 15 and 12 lengths respectively. Tizzard was typically bullish about his chances last time but admitted afterwards that he ‘had a good blow’. Cue Card ran reasonably well, not showing any obvious signs of physical damage, but appeared to empty in the manner of a horse that was not yet fully fit.
Tizzard’s stable star stunned many by winning the Betfair Chase on unsuitably soft ground last year, beating David Pipe’s Dynaste by over four lengths and a below par Silviniaco Conti by almost six. He is an exuberant speed merchant who won the Ryanair Chase (over two and a half miles) at the Festival in 2013 but is capable of getting further when 100% fit.
The dramatically improved form of Tizzard’s yard makes that a much more likely prospect than could be expected a month ago. When his new jockey Daryl Jacob was asked what his wish for Christmas was he said it would be for Cue Card to be back to his best for Boxing Day. It could well happen. He looks an extremely attractive prospect.
Another son of King’s Theatre with realistic hopes is Philip Hobbs’ Menorah (8/1). He beat Silviniaco Conti by eight lengths in the 3 mile 1 furlong Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby on good ground in early November when both were having their first run of the season. Hobbs’ horses were outperforming most at the time. The placings were predictably reversed in the Betfair Chase on unsuitably soft ground for this nine-year-old.
Hobbs’ stable jockey, Richard Johnson, is currently sidelined but he thinks Menorah stands a decent chance on a less testing surface. Menorah is rated just 5lb lower than the favourite at 169. The handicapper would probably agree with him. Tom O’Brien takes the ride.
Nicholls’ also saddles a nine-year-old with a live chance. Al Ferof (6/1) is another son of Dom Alco. This grey is rated just 6lb below his more fancied stablemate and lines up on the back of a win that surprised his trainer who thought he looked overweight at the time. He beat Mick Channon’s Somersby by 7 lengths in the 2 mile 1 furlong Amlin Chase in November.
Like Champagne Fever, Al Ferof only scored once last season, first time out in a Grade 2 over 2 miles 1 furlong with only one opponent. He was beaten 14 lengths in this race and by 25 lengths in the Denman Chase on testing ground. Many of Nicholls’ horses have benefited from treatment for stomach ulcers (including Silviniaco Conti). Al Ferof has yet to score over three miles under rules but this is the first time he has been tried on ground faster than soft. Sam Twiston-Davies was not given the choice of Nicholls’ runners but he may be on the right one.
The other runner with more than hope is Dynaste (8/1). Trainer David Pipe is trying cheekpieces for the first time here and thinks that this eight-year-old may well have come on for his first run. He will need to. He was beaten 10 lengths in the Betfair. Like Hobbs’ Wishfull Thinking (25/1), Dynaste has suffered from breathing problems and cannot be followed with much confidence.
King George VI Chase Betting Tips Verdict
Silviniaco Conti looks vulnerable over this distance on good to soft ground and Champagne Fever has too many questions to answer to appeal. Menorah and Cue Card are likely to enjoy conditions but our preference has to be for CUE CARD each-way, best priced at 7/1 with Betfair Sportsbook.