Vautour set to be crowned King
Ruby Walsh's mount has quality to prevail in Kempton showpiece
There will be a lot of long faces on this side of the water if either Don Cossack or Vautour fails to secure a first Irish triumph in the King George VI Chase since Kicking King won his second in a row 10 years ago.
You could argue that even a victory for Valseur Lido would be an anti-climax.
However, this is such a belting edition of the Kempton Grade One that the indisputable second string for both Willie Mullins and Michael O'Leary's Gigginstown House Stud firm would have to command huge respect were he to emerge on top.
Paul Nicholls' dual hero Silviniaco Conti is no forlorn hope. He was readily held by Cue Card at Haydock, but Nicholls has won nine renewals of this prestigious event, so no one is better versed at having a horse primed for the Christmas feature.
Under Noel Fehily's cool hand, odds of 9/1 are too attractive to ignore as an each-way option. In short, Silviniaco Conti is a more trustworthy option than Cue Card at less than half those odds. Colin Tizzard's star has been a revelation this term, but he has already fallen short in this three-miler on three occasions.
Smad Place's aggressive running style is likely to render him vulnerable against this calibre of horse, and you would wonder if the race will really suit Don Cossack. Gordon Elliott's charge is the highest rated chaser in training with a mark of 175, a distinction that he has earned.
He has won four on the spin and certainly didn't look short of gears when scooting up on a decent surface over two-and-a-half miles at Aintree in the spring. Today, though, he will likely be expected to race on the pace from the off under Bryan Cooper, as he isn't a horse that will come through and pick up.
There is undoubtedly every chance that he could pull it off and confirm himself the leading Gold Cup contender. Still, given the way the race will be run, it might suit better to be ridden for a finish, and there is surely no more suitable candidate than Vautour.
Ruby Walsh has tended to bounce out Mullins's strong-traveller, but often that is simply because nothing can go quick enough to give him a lead. That shouldn't be the case here. While he might not drop Vautour out, he could sit just off the leaders and pounce when they have punched themselves out.
The six-year-old Robin Des Champs gelding has the quality to do that. As a Supreme Novices' Hurdle winner, he is all class. He kept on well in the JLT last March, so the trip should be within his range.
Inevitably, the very best horses have the toe to compete at the highest level over two miles. Kauto Star and Best Mate are two fine examples of that, and, at this point in time, Vautour is in that mould. He has it all. Granted, he was visually underwhelming at Ascot, but the form book would suggest that there was little wrong with his run. While he jumped to his left, a lot of horses do that at Ascot, and it would be a stretch to conclude that his fencing is problematic given his form since losing at Leopardstown a year ago.
The chief concern would be that the ground will deteriorate badly and turn the race into a dour slog. Clearly, that wouldn't be ideal, but Vautour is a horse of such immense potential that it would still be inadvisable to pass up odds of around 10/3 about him emerging victorious.
Mullins and Walsh also combine for Faugheen in the Christmas Hurdle. Neither could you bet against him coming on for his lacklustre reappearance, but, given his odds, that is a race to watch. Open Eagle is worth a venture for them in the opening novices' hurdle. Last year's runaway November Handicap winner doesn't look straightforward, but he seems to relish deep ground.
Open Eagle left behind last season's Punchestown flop to do enough at Fairyhouse last month, and Mullins obviously feels that this is a winnable opportunity for him. At odds of about 7/2, he is value to topple Nicky Henderson's Altior.
Mullins and Cooper rely on Net D'Ecosse in the old Feltham Novices' Chase. Preferred is Fehily's Neil Mulholland-trained mount Southfield Royale, a sound-jumping mud-lover that is on an upward curve.
The Welsh Grand National looks like being typically competitive – should it get the go-ahead.
More to the point, with the ground almost certain to be heavy, it will be as much of a slog as ever. That will suit the likes of last year’s winner Emperor’s Choice, Cogry and Upswing, among many others.
Taking everything into account, though, the one that catches the eye is Cogry’s Nigel Twiston-Davies-trained stablemate Tour Des Champs.
Successful in the trial for this in deep ground at the course three weeks ago, the Robin Des Champs eight-year-old has the right profile. He is a consistent, experienced chaser that loves a proper grind but isn’t overly exposed.
A year ago, he never ran his race off a mark of 137. However, he was out of form going into the race. This time, Tour Des Champs is at the top of his game, yet is still seven pounds lower than 12 months ago.
That is significant and, with the top-weight Black Thunder due to run, he will carry just 10st 4lb, or less if Twiston-Davies claims off him. At odds of up to 14/1, he has plenty of appeal.