Undoubtedly the King George VI Chase, run at Kempton Park on Boxing Day, has become the Crown Jewel in British Steeplechasing’s first half of the season.
The race provides more than a touch of class and has been won by young up and coming chasers, two mile experts stepping up in trip and future Gold Cup winners and defending champions alike.
The focal point of Christmas for any racing fan, the race has been won by racing’s glitterati and the race’s distance and the Kempton Park racetrack, bring together stars from different distances, in a way that the slightly further Cheltenham Gold Cup cannot do.
The race had a relatively low key beginning in 1937, when it was won by 12 year old Southern Hero. After Airgead Seos had won the following year, war broke out and the race did not return until 1947, when the Fulke Walwyn trained Rowland Roy won. A year later Cottage Rake, one of the finest Gold Cup winners of all time, won for the magician that was Dr Vincent O’Brien.
Throughout the 1950s the race gathered momentum with stars like Halloween (twice) and Galloway Braes winning the race, before Mandarin also won two King Georges.
The great Mill House followed up his Gold Cup and Hennessy Gold Cup wins with a King George in 1963, before the peerless Arkle claimed the 1965 prize. Sadly the following year saw Arkle’s career-ending injury.
The 1970s brought two victories for the spectacular Pendil – still one of the finest chasers never to win a Gold Cup, while the brilliant Captain Christy won in 1974 and 1975, adding to a Gold Cup win.
The decade ended with the emergence of a major stable, as first Gay Spartan and then Silver Buck won in 1978 and 1979. Silver Buck would follow up the next year too, in a thrilling race which saw him outstay the headstrong mare Anaglogs Daughter, following the capitulation of Night Nurse as he made his challenge. Silver Buck would go on to claim a famous Gold Cup victory in 1982.
By 1982, denied his opportunity of a treble the previous year due to frost, Silver Buck – by now in the veteran stage, was beaten by his youthful stable companion Wayward Lad, who beat Mackeson winner Fifty Dollars More in an exciting finish. It was the first of three memorable victories in the race for one of jump racing’s most popular stars, with Gold Cup winner Burrough Hill Lad breaking up the sequence of wins in 1984 by inches, against Comb’s Ditch.
It was hard to believe Wayward Lad’s exploits could be matched but within the space of a year racing had a new super star as the near white two mile chaser Desert Orchid confounded the doubters to jump his rivals silly in 1986. Although the unconsidered French horse Nupsala won the following year, Dessie dominated Kempton Park’s showpiece chase, winning in 1988, 1989 and emotionally in 1990, beating the likes of Charter Party, Barnbrook Again, The Fellow and Norton’s Coin.
The Fellow, himself a Gold Cup winner, won the King George twice for French trainer Francois Doumen, who won again in 1994 with Algan.
Memories of Desert Orchid flooded back with the emergence of the exciting grey One Man in 1995, although his first King George actually took place in January 1996 after the weather had claimed the Boxing Day fixture. Gordon Richard’s “rubber ball” duly followed up in December 1996, beating future Gold Cup winner Mr Mulligan and Grand National winner Rough Quest.
The following year another Gold Cup winner See More Business had his major breakthrough at Kempton and would win again in 1999. Before then, Teeton Mill had annihilated the field in 1998, having won the Hennessy Gold Cup beforehand and the former hunter chaser looked destined for the top.
Florida Pearl was an emotional winner in 2001, beating future superstar and triple Gold Cup winner Best Mate, who would himself win the next year.
In 2003, as Best Mate headed to Ireland, his veteran stablemate Edredon Bleu was a game winner of a heart-warming renewal.
Kicking King then won a brace of King George VI Chases, sandwiched with a Gold Cup victory, before injury ruined his career. His wins though, paved the way for racing’s next super star: Kauto Star.
Kauto Star had been winning two mile races before stepping up in trip to land the 2006 Betfair Chase over three miles at Haydock. Astonishingly, given the status of the race and the quality of the competitors, Kauto Star went on to win five King Georges, memorably gaining revenge on the 2010 winner (and Gold Cup winner) Long Run in 2011. Long Run himself went on to win a second King George in 2012.
In 2013 there was a changing of the guard and it was the Paul Nicholls trained Silviniaco Conti who got the better of Cue Card in a dramatic end to the race.
Silviniaco Conti once again proved the Christmas King in 2014 with perhaps his most impressive performance to date, comfortably beating Dynaste to continue Paul Nicholls’ remarkable record in the race.
However, there was a new, if very familiar name added to the roll of honour in 2015, as the popular chaser Cue Card battled his way to victory.
Silviniaco Conti was back again but was never a real factor as the pace intensified, with the exciting young pretender from Ireland, Vautour, looking a danger to all.
Vautour took the field into the home straight, with Cue Card and Don Cossack closing. However, two fences from home, Don Cossack jumped low, hit the fence and came down, leaving a battle between Vautour and Cue Card.
The younger horse landed in front at the last but slightly knuckled on landing, while momentum brought the 9 year old Cue Card level with him on the flat. Under a fine ride from Paddy Brennan, Cue Card brought news levels of noise from an appreciative crowd to get up right on the line.
Back in third place came the gallant grey Al Ferof, third for the third consecutive year.
A measure of the quality of this King George was that Don Cossack went on to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup in March, with Cue Card looking a major threat until falling three fences from home. Vautour was also a Cheltenham Festival winner, landing the Ryan Air Chase.
Whilst the Cheltenham Gold Cup requires guts, class and stamina, a King George winner typically needs good racing speed too. The two races put different demands on a horse and are run on completely contrasting courses, so the fact that so many horses have won both races, suggests that the two races really do define a champion.