On Boxing Day, one of the big highlights of the UK jumps season takes place as Kempton Park stages the first day of the Christmas Festival, with the 32Red King George VI Chase the undoubted highlight.
The Grade 1 32Red Kauto Star Novices’ Chase (In Memory of Nigel Clark) over three miles.
Amore Alato was a decent novice chaser last term and looked improved on his return. The Johnny Farrelly trained 7 year old was 21 lengths fourth of 8 to Sametegal on his chasing bow at Huntingdon in early November 2015. He then improved to run 1 ¼ lengths second of 10 to Stilletto in a beginners chase at Catterick in early December. Just over two weeks later he served notice of his ability and looked the likely winner when belting the final fence and unseating his rider in a Grade 2 contest at Ascot. The following month he headed to Haydock Park on Peter Marsh Chase day but was no match for Bristol De Mai, finishing 32 lengths second of 5. In February Amore Alato took on seasoned top class chasers in the Grade 1 Ascot Chase, running with credit to finish 36 lengths fourth of 8 to a resurgent Silviniaco Conti. The following month he was a well beaten 9th of 20 behind Ballyalton in a competitive novices’ handicap chase at the Cheltenham Festival. He returned to action in a Listed chase at Sandown Park in early November, putting up a sparkling display to beat Ballybolley by 7 lengths on his first start over three miles.
Anibale Fly was a very useful hurdler who landed a valuable handicap hurdle at the Punchestown Festival in April, beating The Romford Pele by 3 lengths. The Tony Martin trained 6 year old made a winning start over fences with a hard fought ¾ of a length defeat of former Albert Bartlett Hurdle winner Martello Tower, at Navan in mid-November. In early December he ran a belter in the Grade 1 Drinmore Novice Chase at Fairyhouse, finishing 2 ¼ lengths second of 7 to Coney Island.
Caracci Apache was a very useful novice hurdler a couple of seasons ago but is on the comeback trail after a suffering a nasty leg injury in the autumn of 2015. The Nicky Henderson trained 6 year old won three successive novice hurdles two seasons ago, including the Grade 2 River Don at Doncaster in January 2015, when he beat Blaklion by a head. He pulled up in that season’s Albert Bartlett Novices’ Hurdle and was later that spring second to Onenightinvienna in a novice hurdle at Perth. He made his chasing debut at Aintree in early November 2015, coming home 18 lengths third of 6 behind Bally Beaufort, but injury kept him off the track for the remainder of last winter. A couple of spins on the flat in late summer helped to bring him back to fitness, but he was a faller on his return to chasing at Newbury in mid-December and faces a tough task here.
Churchtown Champ was a fair novice hurdler last winter, but has shaped as though chasing will see him in an improved light. The Dan Skelton trained 6 year old ran well on his chasing debut to finish a head second of 5 to Fayette County in a Worcester novices’ handicap chase in October. A month later he got off the mark when beating Pearl Swan by 10 lengths at Southwell in a similar type of contest. This represents a big step up in class.
Might Bite was a pretty smart novice hurdler last season, recording three victories, including an 8 lengths defeat of Simply A Legend in a valuable handicap hurdle at Kempton Park in March. The Nicky Henderson trained 7 year old subsequently disappointed in a handicap hurdle at Cheltenham the following month, but has made a good start to his chasing career. He ran a promising race on his chasing debut to finish 4 lengths second of 3 to Binge Drinker in a Ffos Las novice chase in early November. A month later he got off the mark in emphatic style at Doncaster, slamming Premier Bond by 14 lengths. This is a big step up in class.
Minella Daddy was a fair hurdler, although his form would not have compared to several of these. However, the Peter Bowen trained 6 year old has looked a much better chaser so far, having shown promise in three point to points earlier in his career. He made his novice chase debut at Worcester in late September, finishing 2 ½ lengths second of 7 to Southfield Vic. The following month he impressed as he got off the mark with a 6 lengths defeat of Whataknight at Ffos Las and he made it back to back victories with an impressive display at Ascot in November, landing a novices’ handicap chase by 7 lengths from Tinker Time. He ran a cracker in the Ascot fog recently, taking on experienced chasers in the Silver Cup and finishing 1 ¾ lengths second of 14 to Regal Encore.
Present Man comes into this race on a winning note, after a series of second place finishes. The Paul Nicholls trained 6 year old was second three times last winter over hurdles before having a couple of spins over fences in the spring – and finishing second on each occasion. He looked to have strengthened and improved on his return at Wincanton in mid-October beating I’m In Charge by 4 ½ lengths. In early November he returned there to take on experienced chasers in the Badger Ales Trophy, but unseated his rider. He got back to winning ways at Ascot in late November, defeating Go Conquer by a neck in a handicap chase. Present Man then impressed in the Grade 2 December Novices’ Chase at Doncaster, in early December, staying on stoutly (although jumping notably to his right) to beat Potters Legend by 1 ¾ lengths.
Royal Vacation proved a decent hurdler last season, with a good degree of consistency that saw him win three races at a lower grade, although he was soundly beaten by McKinley in a handicap hurdle at Sandown Park in late April. The Colin Tizzard trained 6 year old has been sent chasing this autumn, finishing 8 lengths second of 6 to As De Mee in a Fontwell Park chase on his debut in October. Ten days later he was second again, beaten 11 lengths by Zeroeshadesofgrey at Wetherby. He got off the mark in a Lingfield Park handicap chase in late November, beating Delgany Demon by 3 ½ lengths. In mid-November he stepped up in class and was no match for the brilliant Politologue in the Grade 2 Noel Novices’ Chase at Ascot, coming home 6 ¾ lengths third of 4 to the exciting grey.
Virgilio was a useful handicap hurdler last term and is a perfect two from two over fences. The Dan Skelton trained 7 year old beat Rock On Oscar by 13 lengths in a Warwick novice chase in May and after a summer off, made a winning return in a Newton Abbot chase in early October, defeating Brother Tedd by 6 lengths. A month later he pulled up in a Wincanton Grade 2 contest. Late in November he headed to Newbury for another Grade 2 contest, finishing 10 lengths second of 5 to the smart looking Clan Des Obeaux.
Frodon comes here with a huge reputation after landing the Caspian Caviar Gold Cup last time out at the tender age of four. He was a useful juvenile hurdler last winter and has quickly made his mark as a novice chaser, taking on seasoned handicappers. The Paul Nicholls trained scopey gelding won a novice chase at Newton Abbot in mid-September by 8 lengths from Tempestateofloresco. He made it two from two when defeating Clean Sheet by 5 lengths at Fontwell Park at the end of September and the impressed in the Grade 2 Rising Stars Novices’ Chase at Wincanton last weekend, having Shantou Village beaten when that rival fell at the last. He was then pitched into the hurly burly of the BetVictor Gold Cup at Cheltenham in mid-November, running well for a long way before fading to finish 24 lengths 10th of 17 behind Taquin Du Seuil. Then came his return to Cheltenham in early December, where he stayed on stoutly to beat Aso by 1 ½ lengths. He now steps up to three miles for the first time, on a much sharper course.
The attention turns to hurdling next with the Grade 1 32Red.com Christmas Hurdle over two miles.
Ch’Tibello showed promise in two starts in France, winning on the second occasion, before joining Dan Skelton. The 5 year old ran well on all three occasions last autumn without winning, including when finishing 1 ¼ lengths second to Altior at Ascot last October. He ran 9 lengths third of 7 to Sternrubin in the Listed Gerry Feilden Hurdle at Newbury last November and was not seen out again until mid-April, when he landed the Grade 2 Scottish Champion Hurdle by 1 ¼ lengths from Cloudy Dream. The following month he ran well in the Grade 3 Swinton Hurdle at Haydock Park, coming home 3 lengths third of 16 to Gwafa. He returned to action in a Listed handicap hurdle at Ascot in late October, finishing 1 ¾ lengths fifth of 12 to old rival Sternrubin. The following month he revelled in the mud at Haydock Park, winning a valuable hurdle by 2 ¼ lengths from Melodic Rendezvous.
My Tent Or Yours has long been one of the top hurdlers and finished ¼ of a length second to Jezki in the 2014 Champion Hurdle. The Nicky Henderson trained 9 year old also won the 2013 Betfair Hurdle and the Grade 1 Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle in November 2013. The following month he added the Grade 1 Christmas Hurdle at Kempton Park, beating The New One by ½ a length, after the latter had sprawled on landing at the last flight and lost momentum. My Tent Or Yours completed a four-timer on the all-weather at Kempton Park and headed to Cheltenham as the UK’s leading hope along with The New One. However, for the second successive year he was to be denied up that famous hill in the Champion Hurdle, fighting out a dour battle with Jezki and coming off second best by just ¼ of a length. He was perhaps feeling the effects of a hard race when a disappointing 4 lengths third of 11 to Cockney Sparrow in the Scottish Champion Hurdle at Ayr in April 2014. My Tent Or Yours then suffered an injury which kept him off the track until the Champion Hurdle in March 2016. In the circumstances, he ran a hell of a race, his first start in 23 months, finishing 4 ½ lengths second of 12 to Annie Power. He took the mare on once again in the Grade 1 Aintree Hurdle in April, but seemed not to stay over the additional trip, coming home 18 lengths second of 6. Towards the end of April he travelled to Ireland for the Grade 1 Punchestown Champion Hurdle, finishing 4 ¾ lengths third of 6 to Vroum Vroum Mag. He was rather lack lustre in unsuitably heavy ground at Haydock Park in late November, failing to pick up and finishing 4 ¼ lengths third of 4 behind Ch’Tibello. He then headed to Cheltenham for the Grade 2 Bula Hurdle in early December, but was no match for his old rival The New One, coming home 3 ½ lengths second of 6.
The New One makes his long-awaited return to action here in a race he has won before. The Nigel Twiston-Davies trained 8 year old has won 16 races under rules and finished third, fourth and fifth in three Champion Hurdles, as well as winning at the Cheltenham Festival in 2013. In his younger days, The New One was described by his trainer as a possible Gold Cup horse one day. He won the Grade 2 Bula Hurdle in 2013 and 2014, but fell in an Aintree Grade 1 hurdle in April. Plans were in place for The New One to go novice chasing but his intended debut over fences was postponed in early December after Exeter was abandoned. Instead, he made his seasonal return at week later at Cheltenham and impressed as he landed his third Grade 2 Bula Hurdle by 3 ½ lengths from My Tent Or Yours. The New One has apparently had plenty of work done at home and appeared to jump a lot straighter at Cheltenham.
Yanworth sets the mark for many here, after his awesome performance at the last Cheltenham meeting. He made his mark as a top class bumper horse last term, winning his first two starts before finishing 2 ¼ lengths second of 13 to Supersundae and the Alan King trained 6 year old ran a massive race in the Champion Bumper at the Cheltenham Festival in March, finishing 3 ¼ lengths fourth of 19 to Moon Racer. He made a winning start over hurdles when beating Welsh Shadow by 1 ¼ lengths at Exeter in early November. Later that month, he made it two from two over timber with a 1 ¼ lengths victory over the smart prospect Le Prezien at Warwick. Just before Christmas, Yanworth headed to Ascot for the Grade 2 Kennel Gate Novices’ Hurdle, putting up a fine performance to beat Charbel by 2 ¾ lengths. He then headed to Cheltenham Trials Day and took on some progressive novices in a trial for this race, his first attempt at this trip. What followed was pure poetry as he powered past his rivals in the home straight to beat Shantou Village by 7 lengths hard held. However, he took a wide route in the Grade 1 Neptune Investment Management Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham in March and was under pressure early in the straight, as he finished 1 ¾ lengths second of 11 to Yorkhill. Yanworth returned to action in a Grade 2 contest at Ascot last month and was made to work hard to pass Lil Rockerfeller, eventually winning by ¾ of a length. He now drops down in trip.
Gray Wolf River has absolutely no chance here and looks completely out of her depth. The Richard Harper trained 5 year old mare has been unplaced in all 11 starts over hurdles, her best effort being a fourth place finish. She was beaten 30 lengths in a selling hurdle in September and baring accidents, there is no tangible reason for her to pick up any prize money.
Next up comes the big race, the Grade 1 32Red King George VI Chase over three miles.
Last year’s winner Cue Card will need very little introduction and looked like playing a major hand in the Cheltenham Gold Cup when he fell three out. The Colin Tizzard trained 10 year old has enjoyed a glittering career, winning the 2010 Champion Bumper, the 2013 Ryanair Chase, two Betfair Chases and a King George VI Chase. All of that despite injuries and breathing problems at times. A further breathing operation last year seemed to work the oracle though, and he reappeared in the Grade 2 Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby in late October and handed out a 3 ¾ lengths beating to old rival Dynaste. That improvement was confirmed in the Grade 1 Betfair Chase at Haydock Park in November, as he dominated his old rivals and slammed Silviniaco Conti by 7 lengths with arguably a career-best effort. For the fourth year running Cue Card headed to Kempton Park for the King George VI Chase on Boxing Day and finally things ran smoothly for him. Vautour led and still travelled well into the home straight, with Cue Card and Don Cossack the only ones really in contention. As Don Cossack fell at the second last fence, Cue Card began to close on Vautour and in the dying strides the 10 year old mustered enough stamina and determination to pass the young pretender and win by a head. It was then full steam to the Cheltenham Gold Cup and as the early leaders Smad Place and O’Faolains Boy dropped away racing downhill, Cue Card moved to join the leaders Don Cossack and Djakadam, travelling every bit as well as the Irish pair before taking a crunching fall three out. Redemption came in spades as Cue Card routed his rivals in the Grade 1 Betfred Bowl at Aintree, beating Don Poli and Djakadam by 9 lengths. He had perhaps had enough at that point and ran a flat race in the Punchestown Gold Cup in late April, coming home 6 ¾ lengths fourth of 6 to Carlingford Lough. He looked booked for victory some way out in the Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby last month, before tiring late on, finishing 3 ¼ lengths third of 7 to Irish Cavalier. Afterwards Colin Tizzard blamed himself for tactics and it was a resurgent and rampant Cue Card who became the first horse to beat Coneygree over fences, with a 15 lengths victory in the Grade 1 Betfair Chase at Haydock Park last month, again putting Cue Card in line for a million pound bonus in the Jockey Club Jumps Triple Crown, with this race the second leg.
Josses Hill has proved something of an enigma over fences, although he made a polished return. Nicky Henderson’s 8 year old is supremely gifted and was a smart novice hurdler a couple of years ago. Despite the slightly erratic nature of his runs over fences in novice chases, Josses Hill headed to Cheltenham for the 2015 Arkle and he jumped better off a faster pace, running on to finish 8 lengths third to Un De Sceaux and God’s Own. The following month he contested the Grade 1 Manifesto Novices’ Chase at Aintree, but disappointed, finishing 12 lengths fourth of 6 to Clarcam. Josses Hill returned to action in the Grade 1 Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown Park in early December and suffered a horrific fall from which he thankfully got up. He jumped much better and showed he still possesses a good engine when beating God’s Own by 8 lengths in a Kempton Park graduation chase over 2 ½ miles in February, but was a well beaten 8th of 15 to Vautour in the Grade 1 Ryanair Chase at the Cheltenham Festival in March. He returned to action in a match race at Kempton Park in early November, beating the useful Camping Ground by 8 lengths and looking a lot better with his jumping. In early December he continued in that form as he landed the Grade 2 Peterborough Chase at Huntingdon by 6 lengths from Tea For Two. He now faces a vastly different challenge over a longer trip and at a likely pace which will test his jumping, even at his favourite track.
Silviniaco Conti put up a very pleasing comeback run, after a disappointing campaign last term, littered with minor ailments. The Paul Nicholls trained 10 year old has won two Betfair Chases and two King George VI Chases but this season his form seemed to drop a level. He ran very flat in this corresponding race last season and was a beaten horse some way from home, staying on at the one pace to finish 7 lengths second of 5 to a resurgent Cue Card. He then headed to Kempton Park bidding to win his third King George and set out to make the running. However, the writing was on the wall long before the home turn and he faded tamely, eventually pulling up. Afterwards, Nicholls outlined that he had his palate cauterised and a case of sarcoids also cleared up. The result was a brilliant victory in the Grade 1 Ascot Chase in late February, over a shorter trip. He dominated his rivals and eventually beat Dynaste by 20 lengths. Silviniaco Conti then lined-up in the Grand National at Aintree in April, but never appeared to be enjoying himself and was pulled up towards the end of the first circuit. He returned to action in the Grade 1 JNWine.com Champion Chase at Down Royal in early November, racing prominently for a long way before finishing 11 lengths second to the exciting Valseur Lido. However, he looked a shadow of his former self in the Grade 1 Betfair Chase, fading tamely in the home straight to finish 42 lengths fourth of 6 to Cue Card.
A useful hurdler, Tea For Two proved a very smart novice chaser last term, winning at Grade 1 level. The Nick Williams trained 7 year old won the 2015 Lanzarote Hurdle and made a perfect start to life over fences when beating Oscar Sunset by 10 lengths in an Exeter novice chase in early December. On Boxing Day he took a big step up in class for the Grade 1 Kauto Star Novices’ Chase, defeating Southfield Royale by 4 lengths to create history as Lizzie Kelly became the first female jockey to win a Grade 1 chase in the UK. Tea For Two had one more start last term, dropping in distance for the Grade 1 Scilly Isles’ Novices’ Chase at Sandown Park in early February and coming home a disappointing 7 lengths third of 4 to Bristol De Mai. He was not seen out again until running 8 ½ lengths fifth of 12 to Antony in a valuable Ascot handicap chase in late October. In early December he ran well to finish 6 lengths second of 5 to Josses Hill but this is the toughest assignment he has faced.
Thistlecrack takes his chance in this King George as an inexperienced novice, his involvement and his class have commanded plenty of print space. He proved peerless in a brilliant staying hurdle campaign last season winning all five starts, including three at Grade 1 level and never really under serious challenge. The Colin Tizzard trained 8 year old won the World Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival by 7 lengths from Alpha Des Obeaux and in April added the Grade 1 Liverpool Stayers’ Hurdle by 7 lengths from Shaneshill. He made a flawless debut over fences at Chepstow in late October, beating Aqalim by a comfortable four lengths. However, his performance when winning a Cheltenham novice chase in mid-November by 3 ¾ lengths from Marinero, provoked much debate. Whilst Thistlecrack possessed an infinitely superior engine, he stood off from ditches and seemed to mis-judge one or two, as well as jumping several plain fences big. In short, he did not seem to measure all of the fences accurately, but at Newbury in late November, he put up a super round of jumping before powering away to an 8 lengths defeat of Bigbadjohn in a Grade 2 Novice Chase. This race will fully test his jumping acumen and true chasing talent, with a likely fast Championship pace.