Monday 18 December 2017

Arrival of new guard spices up King George

Long Run's star may be fading but a host of newcomers are firmly in the ascendant, writes Ian McClean

St Stephen’s Day could be a grey day at Kempton as Al Ferof and Dynaste clash in the King George
St Stephen’s Day could be a grey day at Kempton as Al Ferof and Dynaste clash in the King George

Ian McClean

The news that Simonsig has been roughed off for the entire season with a splint problem illustrates, as if we needed any reminding, the vagaries of the jumping discipline. But for that, he would surely have been one of the centre attractions at one of the campaign's peak periods, a time which welcomes not just the north star, but most of the stars of the sport from across Ireland and the UK.

Simonsig's notional target of the King George now has just the 11 standing their ground at the latest forfeit stage but, notwithstanding the slender number, the form lines of the principals are extremely tightly knit and a thrilling renewal seems very much in prospect at the Sunbury venue.

The hallmark of the race this time is the infiltration of new blood. During the last seven years the race has only been won by two horses -- the legendary Kauto Star and the still-remarkably-just-eight-year-old Long Run. Long Run announced his arrival on the scene by winning the Feltham as a four year-old at this fixture way back in 2009 and duly won the King George the following year. Since then he has won a Gold Cup and been placed in two more but his real signature since 2009 has been his presence in the King George and in particular his Burton-Taylor-style relationship with Kauto Star as they scrapped with remorseless regularity for supremacy to the public's delight.

This will be Long Run's fifth appearance at Kempton's premier fixture and at face value his odds of 12/1 look like an insult to his record here. However, his two runs this season so far have hardly left the spine tingling and he will certainly need to perk his ideas up if he is to retain his King George crown.

Of course, if in fact Long Run's star is actually fading, then it is contrasted simultaneously with the arrival of the new guard, many of whom are firmly in the ascendant. Any from amongst Cue Card, Dynaste, Silviniaco Conti, Al Ferof and even Mount Benbulben, which is almost half the field, is capable of registering a career-best effort and this only adds to the fascination of an already compelling affair.

The first four home in Haydock's Betfair Chase renew rivalry and the victorious and the vanquished -- all in their own way -- can harbour plausible grounds for optimism. Cue Card was a marvellous victor that afternoon, winning entirely on merit. He was instantly installed as favourite for Kempton but I see him as a drifter on the day for a couple of reasons.

The main one is the admission by trainer Colin Tizzard of having a low-grade virus in the yard. This is backed up the stable's strike rate: seven per cent in October; 11 per cent in November and just five per cent so far in December.

Additionally, there is little doubt Cue Card is best served by dominating from the front like at Haydock, but he is likely to be challenged for that role by Champion Court, which ran so well up to a point last year. This could set the race up for a closer.

Finally, Cue Card's only run at Kempton was a poor one -- in last year's King George. Admittedly, he was greatly unsettled by a first-fence blunder and at what is essentially a rhythm circuit the son of Kings Theatre could never get into contention after that early error.

Desert Orchid and One Man are two radiant greys to have stamped their mettle on the famous race's roll of honour and fans of Dynaste have a strong case for expecting another grey Kempton day. His finest hour as a novice came at the fixture last season when he demolished the opposition in the Feltham. His second at Haydock came on his first run of the campaign and he seemed to visibly tire from the last as a result against a fitter rival. The race on St Stephen's Day is almost certainly going to be run to suit his racing style and it is hard to see how he won't make the frame at least.

Another grey -- and perhaps the most unexposed in the field -- is Al Ferof, which boasts a Supreme Novices victory over Cue Card back in 2011. His chasing career has been as stop-start as it has been chequered and, in addition, he is stepping up to three miles for the first time. The King George canon is stuffed with horses that excelled at less than three miles attempting to profit from the perception of an 'easy three miles' at Kempton only to perish for stamina in the straight. 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. As against that, 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. So you take your chance with Al Ferof and for me 4/1 is very skinny for all that.

If Mount Benbulben travels and manages to put it all together like at Punchestown in April he might well be a fly in everyone's ointment.

It used to be that the Lexus was very much the understudy to the King George's main act over Christmas, but that orthodoxy is heavily challenged by the prospect of the face-off between first and second from the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Saying that, it is somewhat ironic that both Bobs Worth and Sir Des Champs have something to prove again after their most recent outing -- which will only further add to the intrigue at Leopardstown on Saturday.

Last year's Lexus produced arguably the race of the season with an unforgettable four-way drive to the line that saw Tidal Bay emerge victorious. Sir Des Champs was a bit-player in that particular spectacle after an indifferent round of jumping and that frailty literally caused his downfall on his initial outing this season as he crashed out of the John Durkan at an early stage. He is, however, a course-and-distance winner of the Hennessy and a Grade One winner at Punchestown in April so will be a formidable opponent if he turns up with his A-game.

Bobs Worth chose to sit out the festive season last year and was the only horse whose Gold Cup odds contracted after the runnings of the Lexus and King George in 2012. However, having forfeited his unbeaten record racing right-handed when vanquished at Haydock in the Betfair Chase, he is on an uncharacteristic retrieval mission to Ireland to earn his corn this time around.

The field also features the evergreen First Lieutenant, as well as two of last year's leading novices -- Lord Windermere (winner of the RSA) and Unioniste, which started favourite for the same race.

Lord Windermere was disappointing in the Hennessy, but an early mistake in a maximum field of 24 runners around Newbury is not the ideal recipe for your reappearance run. A much better display can be anticipated this time -- especially if the rain stays away.

Further intrigue is added by Willie Mullins' French import Rubi Ball -- a real money-spinner in his native France although lightly-raced -- which suffered defeat in an introductory hurdle race at Thurles on ground that would have been plenty quick. Larger obstacles, softer ground and a longer trip could see a different horse, perhaps even a mirror of the horse that was the best steeplechaser in France in 2010.

Finally, for those interested in historical tie-ups: Rubi Ball finished runner-up to Long Run on Long Run's final French start in the €339,000 G1 premier French four-year-old steeplechase, Prix Maurice Gillois, in 2009. Forget Simonsig, how's that for durability?

Irish Independent

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