GIVEN the standard of horse that graced marquee staying events like the King George VI Chase over the past 10 years, today's edition of the William Hill-sponsored showpiece is a shade underwhelming.
When Kauto Star, five times a winner of the Kempton Grade One, was pulled up by Ruby Walsh to a rapturous round of applause in the Cheltenham Gold Cup last March, there was a palpable sense that a glorious era had finally come to an end. In that respect, then, it is maybe no surprise that the year should close out with a line-up that seems to confirm as much.
In the last decade, the King George has been won only by Best Mate, Edredon Blue, Kicking King, Kauto Star and Long Run. To greater or lesser degrees, all were magnificent exponents of their discipline at their peak and Long Run is now the last survivor of an epoch in which he so memorably dismantled the Kauto StarDenman duopoly.
Of course, it was in the penultimate version of this afternoon's three-miler that he announced his prodigious talent, slamming the re-opposing Riverside Theatre and Kauto Star by 12 and 19 lengths, respectively. Now, though, he returns a shadow of his old self, with just one inconsequential win to his name since his scintillating 2011 Gold Cup triumph.
Despite being just seven years of age, the exertions required to scale such lofty heights inevitably took a
toll on Long Run. Nicky Henderson's charge was as leaden-footed on his Haydock reappearance behind Silviniaco Conti as he was when inexplicably passing up a gilt-edged opportunity to secure successive Gold Cup victories in March and, while more positive tactics from his able amateur rider would help, he is no value for the win at 7/4.
His Barry Geraghty-ridden stablemate Riverside Theatre is interesting, but there is nothing in his history to suggest that the sort of slog that he will encounter on testing ground here will suit on what is his seasonal debut.
The Giant Bolster, which split Synchronised and Long Run at Cheltenham, is also intriguing, with a forceful AP McCoy ride sure to suit.
Kauto Stone, a brother to Kauto Star, is Ruby Walsh's mount, having won the JNwine.com Champion Chase at Down Royal last month. At six, he has scope to improve, but the fact that he wasn't even Walsh's choice until Al Ferof defected is hardly a glowing recommendation.
Cue Card, the only other six-yearold in the race, appeals far more as win material at up to 11/2. Representing the father-son combination of Colin and Joe Tizzard, this classy son of King's Theatre has taken time to fulfil the potential that he showed en route to an emphatic eight-length defeat of Al Ferof in the Champion Bumper at Cheltenham in 2010.
Nonetheless, he has continued to operate at a high level. In four completed starts as a novice over fences, he won two, failed by just a head to beat Bobs Worth at Newbury when conceding seven pounds and stretched a distance clear of the likes of Menorah and Al Ferof when second to Sprinter Sacre in the Arkle Trophy at Cheltenham in March.
When you consider the remarkable heights reached by Bobs Worth, Al Ferof and Sprinter Sacre since then, there surely isn't a more progressive option in today's race.
A strong traveller whose slick jumping technique will stand to him at Kempton, Cue Card was thoroughly professional when sluicing up on his Exeter reappearance over two miles.
Having never run over further than two-and-a-half before, some fear that he won't get home today, but he has bundles of stamina on both sides of his pedigree and he doesn't seem to mind soft ground.
As such, there is every chance he will be better for the step up in trip, so it is impossible to look beyond him in a renewal comprising an array of more exposed rivals.
In the Feltham, Hadrian's Approach is worth a speculative foray for Henderson and Geraghty.
Dynaste will be a hot favourite, but the selection moved well in a good Newbury race that was won by Harry Topper before exiting three-out, and he may be over-priced.
Cinders And Ashes is another that appeals at around 4/1 under Jason Maguire in the Christmas Hurdle. Granted, he has to turn around the form with his Fighting Fifth conqueror Countrywide Flame, but the 12-length winner had the benefit of a run on that occasion.
Last term, Cinders And Ashes was also beaten first time up, yet he was unbowed thereafter, including when toppling Darlan in the Supreme Novices' at Cheltenham.
If Don McCain's five-year-old strips fitter, he certainly won't be beaten as far by Countrywide Flame this time.
Best Bet: Cue Card
Richard Forristal's column was in sparkling form on Saturday, as all three of his selections scored at massive cumulative odds of 714/1 at Ascot. In the Ladbroke Hurdle, he advised Gordon Elliott's 25/1 winner CAUSE OF CAUSES, while his 'Best Bet,' REVE DE SIVOLA, ran away with the Long Walk Hurdle at 9/2. WYCK HILL brought up the treble at 4/1.