Ghosts of Christmas past still looming in race for Festive glory
Paul Nicholls well placed to enhance Kempton legacy by denying Dynaste top prize in mouth-watering showdown, says JA McGrath
It is not hard for owners, trainers and jockeys to experience deja vu in the jumping game. At the highest level, many of the equine stars keep coming back year after year, and often the seasons merge in the memory bank. The best lines of demarcation, it seems, are when the result has been a personally favourable one.
David Pipe knows the feeling well. As a young man, growing up at Pond House, Nicholashayne, on the Devon-Somerset border, he would watch season after season as his famous father, Martin, the 15-times British champion trainer, primed a squad of his best horses to tackle the big races over Christmas and New Year. That first-hand experience has served David well in the build-up to this year's William Hill King George VI Chase at Kempton.
Kauto Star, with five wins, and Desert Orchid, with four, are the two big names that immediately jump off the page of King George heroes. They were trained by Paul Nicholls and David Elsworth, respectively. There has never been a Pipe-trained winner -- neither father nor son has managed to pull it off at Kempton -- but they have always been in contention. Challenger Du Luc, in 1997, finished second for Martin, while in 2009, Madison Du Berlais was runner-up for David, behind Kauto Star, albeit 36 lengths adrift.
It should be pointed out that during Martin Pipe's reign at the top, his stars were more likely to be seen at Chepstow, a day or two after the King George. Carvill's Hill, Bonanza Boy, Run For Free and others were far better suited in the Coral Welsh National. In latter years, though, David has uncovered types which look more at home on Kempton's tight right-handed track.
In 2011, he sent out a grey French import, Grands Crus, to win the Feltham Chase at Kempton on St Stephen's Day, a course-and-distance experience for a novice that is often seen as a taster to the following year's King George. Twelve months hence, the gelding took third behind Long Run in the big one, not long after Dynaste, another French grey, had romped home with the Feltham on the same card. If David Pipe felt a spooky sense of deja vu, who could blame him?
Grands Crus has never realised his great potential -- clearly he has had physical problems -- but Dynaste, after winning at Aintree last April, has bounced back with a fine first-up run for second behind Cue Card in last month's Betfair Chase at Haydock Park. He has been pleasing his trainer greatly over the past two weeks. "I only wish the race was tomorrow," Pipe junior confided yesterday, an indication that he could not be happier with the grey's progress.
"I see no reason why Dynaste cannot give Cue Card a good run for his money," Pipe added. "The track and trip will suit as he so ably demonstrated when winning the Feltham, over course and distance last year."
Equally as optimistic is jockey Tom Scudamore, who considered Dynaste had run the best race of his career at Haydock. "It was a sign that he was ready to take on the big boys. I thought he coped with it all, he took it in his stride. And the one thing that struck me was his jumping. It set him apart. He's got to improve again to beat Cue Card, but it's a challenge we're looking forward to," Scudamore said.
The fact that trainer Colin Tizzard is concerned about the well-being of many in his yard is worrying for punters, who are expected to shy away from the favourite for that reason alone.
Many will latch on to Dynaste as the feasible alternative, but I believe Silviniaco Conti may be the one which proves the best value in the race. He fell in the Gold Cup when travelling well last March, and his seasonal comeback run when third in the Betfair Chase was encouraging. Also, he loves soft ground.
Perhaps it will be trainer Nicholls back in the King George limelight with another rising star. Whatever the outcome, the King George still holds much of its glittering magic in the racing world -- and it still takes a real top chaser to win it.