10 horses to watch this Christmas
The festive season for racing fans gets under way 24 hours later than it does for most other people. Here are some names to pay close attention to over four fabulous days of action
Cheltenham in March might be where champions are crowned, but the upcoming four-day festive bonanza has the potential to be just as illuminating.
Right now, as the jumps season really starts to take shape, there is an array of unknowns and imponderables to be resolved.
Willie Mullins's incredible domination of the domestic scene continues apace. Notwithstanding that he can only be applauded for his feats, such a lop-sided state of affairs doesn't augur well for the long-term health of the game here.
Still, there are some fascinating races in store on the home front.
Gordon Elliott and Henry de Bromhead are among the few keeping the insatiable champion trainer honest on a regular basis, and they are responsible for many of the horses most likely to provide the Christmas racing narrative with alternative plot lines.
We could be in for a few real blockbusters. Chief among the most enthralling prospects is Kempton's King George VI Chase, a Grade One that will see rising stars like Vautour and Don Cossack thrust into battle with old stagers Silviniaco Conti and Cue Card.
Throw in the surprise package that is Smad Place, and it has all the makings of an epic encounter.
Faugheen, in contrast, will have much less on his plate at Kempton.
Closer to home on the same day, Douvan, Sizing John, Ttebbob and Velvet Maker all bring enormous reputations to the table in the Racing Post Novices' Chase. Suffice to say, there will be some sore wounds to be nursed by the time they are done with each other. It will be a similar story if the likes of Yorkhill, Bachasson, Long Dog and Tombstone take each other on a day later on a Leopardstown card that should feature the return of Un De Sceaux.
Sprinter Sacre and Sire De Grugy could also clash on Sunday at Kempton, while the last two days of action in Foxrock should see Don Poli and Road To Riches face off in the Lexus Chase, and Nichols Canyon, Arctic Fire and Identity Thief go at it in the Ryanair Hurdle.
Just four more sleeps, then, before it all kicks off. Ho ho.
Four championship chasers
Vautour (Willie Mullins)
Still one of the most exciting horses in training, despite a workmanlike reappearance triumph. He will improve for his Ascot outing, and the main issue now is identifying which trip will suit him best.
On Saturday, he will have his stamina credentials tested in the King George VI Chase.
Should three miles at Kempton stretch him, could Mullins pitch him in against Un De Sceaux in the Champion Chase division, or would owner Rich Ricci tolerate a Ryanair Chase tilt?
Maybe it won't come to that, because, right now, Vautour is the closest thing we have seen to Kauto Star since the Kempton legend's departure.
Sprinter Sacre (Nicky Henderson)
A wild card English-trained entry. At his imperious best, Sprinter Sacre was among the best chasers to grace the game. In four starts over two years prior to this term, though, he had been pulled up twice and second twice to lesser mortals. Beleaguered by physical ailments, he looked spent.
As such, he was a revelation at Cheltenham in November, thrashing Somersby & Co by 14 lengths and more. It wasn't just that he won again, but that he did everything so easily and with such fervour.
They say they never come back, but he remains a lightly raced nine-year-old. If will be fascinating to see if he can repeat the performance against a rival of Sire De Grugy's calibre.
Don Poli (Willie Mullins)
With Coneygree out and Djakadam seemingly likely to swerve the Lexus Chase, the Leopardstown feature won't be what it might have been.
Don Poli still has some convincing to do to prove that he is of elite calibre, but for all that he is obviously a proper horse.
More than once Mullins has referred to him as a Grand National type, and whether he will have sufficient early pace for the highest level remains to be seen.
We won't find that out on Monday, but, if his fellow Gigginstown Stud-owned rivals and Gold Cup runners-up Road To Riches and Sir Des Champs turn up, he will still face his biggest test yet.
Un De Sceaux (Willie Mullins)
The sudden decision to sidestep the Tingle Creek Chase earlier in the month set alarm bells ringing.
Clearly, Mullins felt he just wasn't getting the right signals. Since then, the vibes have seemingly been fine. Unlike many others, Un De Sceaux is an open book: a one-dimensional, trail-blazing, bold-jumping two-miler.
At his best, he would be a formidable prospect at championship level.
The fear would be that, having been such a precocious, scintillating novice, he may not have much scope to improve. Leopardstown on Sunday should give us a good idea of exactly where he is at.
No More Heroes (Gordon Elliott)
A little shy of the very best over flights, No More Heroes has been the most impressive staying novice chasing prospect seen so far, along with Pont Alexandre, which won't run over Christmas.
Two from two over fences, No More Heroes was deeply impressive in denying a solid yardstick in Monksland to claim his first Grade One in the Drinmore Novices' Chase.
In at Kempton, he is expected to run at Leopardstown on Tuesday.
Sizing John (Henry de Bromhead)
Another that could top his achievements over flights over the bigger obstacles. A surprise Grade One winner at Leopardstown last year, Sizing John was outshone by Douvan thereafter. In winning both of his chasing starts, though, he has really filled the eye, a handsome, old-fashioned sort with plenty of boot.
A clash with old foe Douvan, Ttebbob and Velvet Maker promises to be an absolute thriller.
Rashaan (Colin Kidd)
Gavin Cromwell's Jer's Girl is another with the potential to show up the big guns, but Rashaan's credentials may be slightly more advanced.
Colin Kidd's Aga Khan cast-off gave 11lbs and a comprehensive 13-length beating to the fancied Missy Tata in Grade Three company at Fairyhouse. Should he do the same to Mullins's Footpad in Sunday's Grade Two, the sky really would be the limit.
Two championship hurdlers
Alpha Des Obeaux (Mouse Morris)
Still in contention when crashing at the last flight in the race won by Thistlecrack at Aintree in the spring, Mouse Morris's charge has been second to Black Hercules, Douvan, Nichols Canyon and Arctic Fire on his last four completed starts.
On Monday, he will return to three miles for a first time since Aintree for the Squared Financial Hurdle. Be it as a staying hurdler term or as a chaser in the future, he has the potential to be a force at the highest level.
Arctic Fire (Willie Mullins)
Will probably be the stable's second-string according to the market and Ruby Walsh may be unlikely to desert Nichols Canyon again, but Arctic Fire is a serious two-mile prospect.
Just edged out by Hurricane Fly and Jezki in a cracking finish to last year's Ryanair Hurdle, he was then second to The Fly in the Irish Champion Hurdle and to Faugheen in the Champion Hurdle and its Punchestown equivalent.
He is unbeaten in two this season, and it could prove unwise to underestimate his credentials.
One maiden hurdler
Vigil (Dermot Weld)
Dermot Weld has Vigil and Silver Concorde in over two-and-a-quarter miles and two miles on Saturday and Sunday. Given that the ground will be slow, Vigil may be the more appealing proposition.
Two from two in bumpers at Leopardstown, he beat the subsequent Grade One scorer Bellshill there 12 months ago, before running well to be fifth in the Champion Bumper at Cheltenham.
Whichever race he runs in, he should take some stopping.