As always, the chasing game is the main event for the festive season, writes Ian McClean
Santa Claus must be a horse racing fan because he has certainly filled our stockings with much to satisfy the desires of the racing tribe this festive season. And I'm sure when we finally get the wrapping off, we'll discover a few surprises in the mix that none of us were expecting.
The joy of Christmas of course is at least as much in the anticipation as it is in the moment itself and so we find ourselves three days before St Stephen's Day salivating at the prospect of gorging ourselves on a feast of high-class jumps action in both the UK and Ireland. And if we're talking a traditional feast then there is little doubt that the King George and Lexus are the turkey and ham on the menu. You will have your own view as to the Brussels sprouts.
Both races are made all the more fascinating for the fact that we are in a transition year for staying chasers. In the absence of five-time King George winner Kauto Star, Denman, Imperial Commander and the sad demise of Lexus and Gold Cup winner Synchronised, a vacuum has been created at the top that demands to be filled and there appears to be no end of exciting candidates pitching their case for the champion crown. The two features should help sort the Yorks from the Lancasters.
It might seem logical to conclude that, with Kauto Star removed from the picture, Long Run should be able to pick up the thread and begin his own era of dominance of Kempton's King George. After all, he would be a three-time winner at the fixture already (a Feltham and a King George) were it not for Kauto's obstinacy in insisting on a record-breaking fifth title last year. A mere three-and-a-half lengths was the separating distance last year that means Long Run is not now chasing a third victory in a row in the Sunbury showpiece.
Incredibly still just seven, it is obvious that the circuit is tailor-made to his strengths so he looks sure to have a strong say in the outcome. However, 5/2 is plenty short enough for a horse that seems to have lost its mojo since his Gold Cup victory in 2011. Since then Long Run has started favourite on all five starts but has just a single half-length victory to show for it.
A double-figure field looks set to oppose the 2010 winner this time around and it contains a host of fascinating and upwardly mobile contenders. Perhaps as many as half the field are stepping up to three miles for the first time (amongst them Cue Card, Finian's Rainbow, For Non Stop, Champion Court, Wishfull Thinking and Menorah) a feature that inevitably tempts the old chestnut about Kempton being an "easy three".
The precept is that a flat, relatively tight circuit makes it far less of a stamina test than, say, the undulations of a Gold Cup at Cheltenham. What the patrons of the Bleedin' Obvious ignore, however, is the fact that the pace of the race – for that very reason – is far less forgiving and fuel that might otherwise be conserved has long since run out by the business end.
Think back to Azertyuiop attempting the step up in trip in 2004. The Arkle winner's stamina had palpably given out by the time he entered the straight and he was beaten a very long way into third behind Kicking King. Further back, memory is drawn to Remittance Man in 1991. A brilliant two-and-a-half miler, he was unbeaten in seven chase starts before being sent off favourite in the 1991 King George. He too failed to see out the distance and finished third.
He went on to win his next six consecutive races – but he never tried three miles again. A look back through the annals of the race that began life in 1937 reveals a sorry trail of disappointment for those attempting the unknown territory of three miles for the first time.
Dunkirk fell fatally when taking on the mighty Arkle in 1965. Champions like Anaglog's Daughter, Royal Relief, Barnbrook Again, Deep Sensation, Flagship Uberalles and Voy Por Ustedes all tried to up their game when they upped their distance and all fell short. A glance at the King George roll of honour uncovers one thing very clearly – winners were well-stocked in the stamina department.
There is the odd exception. Desert Orchid was attempting the distance for the first time when he won in 1986 at 16/1. The grey legend of course went on to win the race three more times. One Man – twice a winner of the King George – afterwards unorthodoxly took a reverse step to win a two-mile Champion Chase aged 10. In summary then, if we are to learn anything from history perhaps the best chance the new challengers have of staying the trip is a tin of grey paint (Grands Crus fans take note) . . .
One crumb of comfort for those seeking the upward trajectory is to note that Pendil, Captain Christy, Silver Buck, Wayward Lad, Desert Orchid and One Man – all multiple winners – first announced their reign at the age of seven.
By contrast, the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown doesn't tend to attract the hopeful stayers and, with every drop of rain, it seems ever more likely that Sizing Europe will be sticking to the two-mile discipline of the Dial-A-Bet Chase the previous day. Whereas Long Run seems to have been around longer than Coronation Street, Flemenstar (another seven-year-old) seems to have just burst on the scene. We know the Peter Casey standard-bearer likes Leopardstown and handles heavy ground. However, his first attempt at three miles is eagerly anticipated and the outcome will set the compass for the remainder of his campaign.
However, it could easily be that yet another progressive seven-year-old – Hidden Cyclone – will be the one to provide the sternest opposition. For a horse that has won nine of his 11 starts, he seems to have curiously remained beneath the radar. A slow learner, the penny is slowly beginning to drop and his dispatch of Call The Police at Gowran last time smacked of an improver. Expect a career-best effort next Friday.
If we have much to savour amongst the present generation of chasers over Christmas, then we have just as much to look forward to with the novices. Once again, on either side of the water we look to be heading for a fantastic head-to-head.
On Wednesday, Arvika Ligeonniere squares up to Oscars Well in the Racing Post Chase in what should make for an intriguing spectacle with an attacking jump-and-run style countered by a stamina-packed closer.
In a parallel universe at Kempton a day later, we have the exact same scenario likely to be mirrored by Overturn and Simonsig should they both appear on the day. There is little doubt all four novices are of Grade One standard – no surprise as they occupy the first four positions in the Arkle market – and they should give us plenty to savour in their respective races.
One thing is sure this period – after the Christmas twist of racing's kaleidoscope the markets for the Gold Cup and the Arkle will have changed irreversibly. Many questions will have been answered and, inevitably, even more questions will have emerged. That's the real joy of Christmas.