Nightingale can strike from shadows of Kauto spotlight
With all eyes on the brilliant Kauto Star, Nicholls' understudy holds the real value, writes Ian McClean
It used to be said before the financial meltdown that the definition of an economist was someone who predicted 27 of the last two recessions. Since the advent of the financial meltdown, economists have become the new box office. However, fiscal forecasters have recently been supplanted by meteorologists, with whom in recent weeks we have developed a whole new living-room intimacy as we are suspended on their every word.
Almost to a man (and woman), however, meteorologists have, just like the old economists, predicted, it seems, 27 thaws -- none of which have yet arrived -- leaving racing fans especially dreaming forlornly of a Green Christmas.
One comfort is that the delinquency of forecasters we would once have staked our lives on makes the profession of race-forecasting seem a little less fraught -- given that by definition you will be wrong more often than you're right.
So I can't tell you whether or when we'll race this Christmas, but I have a few suggestions for where the value might lie in the major Kempton spectacles if we do . . .
In the same way the BBC Sports Personality of the Year was all about one sportsman, so the King George is all about one horse.
The union of the greatest steeplechaser of modern times with the greatest jumps rider of all time in the quest for a history-defying fifth King George in a row makes Kempton at Christmas the ultimate first-class stamp on racing's festive envelope.
This year's King George is perhaps the only race on the calendar that is not all about the Festival in March. The King George -- maybe uniquely -- is an end in itself. Not the habitual means to the end that is Cheltenham. A Kauto Star Five at Kempton is without question more important than a Three in the Gold Cup at Cheltenham 2011.
For the fifth consecutive year he is set to start odds-on tomorrow. Following his now traditional Down Royal saunter, there appears to be little sign of decline at the age of 10. Since November 2008 he has won every race he has stood up in -- all Grade Ones.
In any case, age is no barrier to the King George. Wayward Lad and Desert Orchid were both 10 when they won. Desert Orchid went on to win it aged 11 -- the same age as Edredon Bleu in 2003. Multiple winners are common: in addition to Wayward Lad and Desert Orchid, Pendil, Captain Christy, Silver Buck, The Fellow, One Man, See More Business and Kicking King are all multiple winners.
Furthermore, favourites have a particularly good record in the race with victory in seven of the last eight renewals. So in the case for Kauto the Fifth 2010, what's not to like? Little wonder many bookmakers are reporting more activity on the market 'To Be Second'.
Moreover, I feel this year's field may be lacking overall, in that those with the scope to overturn Kauto have questions to answer at the trip while those which get the trip well are fully exposed.
Why Long Run is second favourite and as short as around 6/1 is a real head-scratcher. This is not a young man's race. The last five-year-old to win a King George was Manicou trained by Peter Cazalet back in 1950. Following more hype than The X Factor, Long Run was beaten in a handicap off a mark of 158 last time. To compare, Kauto's Racing Post Rating after his win in last year's King George was 192. Long Run's price is based on reputation in France and a cruising victory in Kempton's Feltham on the same card 12 months ago.
Two items about his Feltham win put me off. Firstly the field was anything but Grade One class; his main opponent didn't stay the trip and the time was a full eight seconds slower than Kauto recorded an hour later. Secondly, he made a few juddering mistakes on the way around and his performance at Cheltenham in November doesn't suggest his jumping technique has yet reached Grade One standard. Kempton's King George is, above any other prestige chase, a rhythm race. There is no margin for error -- as Imperial Commander's mistake at the second fence proved last year. Despite his class he could just never get back into it. On that basis, Long Run is 'place lay' material.
Another one highly touted recently is Riverside Theatre. The plus for him is that he is unbeaten at Kempton and thrives on a flat track. However, he has an irritating tendency to hit a flat spot in his races -- evidenced even the last day against limited opponents. Any time his sights have been raised (Cheltenham and Punchestown last season) he has come up short. Finally, he is attempting three miles for the first time. There is a perception that Kempton is an easy three, but ironically the history of the race is littered with non-staying failures. Forpadydeplasterer is another trying the trip for the first time and while his jumping will be a big asset, his finishing second in 10 of his last 11 chases does ask a different question.
If there is value in the field, it lies with Paul Nicholls' understudy The Nightingale. For starters, he is joint third top-rated in the field on 167 -- seven pounds higher than Riverside Theatre (yet he's twice the price) and nine pounds higher than Long Run (yet he's five times his price).
Unlike many others, I feel the King George test could bring about a career best for the seven-year-old which has only run 10 times in his life. He was seriously impressive on his only visit to Kempton in February, where his jumping was particularly polished. All his victories have come at right-handed tracks on softish ground. His only defeat over fences came at Aintree (left-handed in quick conditions).
He was devastating at Down Royal on his seasonal reappearance and as a son of Cadoudal he is bred to improve as he steps up in distance. Typically when frost covers are removed from the turf, conditions are rendered very dead, extremely testing, and this will suit The Nightingale far more than some of his more fashionable rivals.
The Nightingale (win or come second to Kauto Star) 14/1 (Stan James, Coral)
There are two key elements to the other star turn on Kempton's card, the Christmas Hurdle. The first is pace, the other conditions underfoot. Beginning with the pace angle, with Galway Hurdle/Northumberland Plate winner Overturn as well as Triumph Hurdle runner-up Barizan in the field, there is only one way this race will play out -- as a thorough, cut-throat end-to-end gallop.
On genuinely quick ground I would have seriously considered Overturn as it is those conditions that have overseen his spectacular rise from winning a handicap hurdle off 100 at Ayr in March to a rating of now 159 some nine months later. But a frost-covered Christmas Kempton couldn't be further from blistering Ballybrit in July.
The pace angle should, in theory, set it up for the two favourites, Binocular and Starluck, but neither's finishing kick is accommodated by such tacky terrain. Of the pair I'd prefer Starluck, as he finished six lengths ahead of Binocular last time at Haydock on a track far less suited to his strengths, yet he's twice the price. And we know the only day that really matters for Binocular is March 15, so (as at Haydock) he won't be punished unduly on tricky ground and I expect him to drift from his current 7/4.
Aintree Hurdle winner Khyber Kim is usually best fresh, but my reservations with him are threefold. He is far better left-handed (he has only once from 13 hurdle starts run right-handed -- when beaten out of sight in Ascot's Ladbroke in 2008). The Twiston-Davies bandwagon tends to get stuck around this time of the year. And Khyber Kim likes a stiff galloping track with an uphill finish (hence his Cheltenham record). Unless it's Aintree when he needs another half a mile.
Oscar Whisky was well supported for the Ladbroke until its abandonment, but there he could have exploited a handicap mark of 146. That leaves him with nearly two stone to find with Binocular so I suspect this is Henderson giving his sophomore a sighter before exploring the novice chase route with this son of Oscar.
So back to the pace angle. The other horse for whom pace is the key is Escort'men, whose arrival was heralded over course and distance in a Grade Two last February. That day the leaders went off too fast and the four-year-old picked them off like a horse of considerable potential. At Aintree, the contrasting slow pace meant the Nicholls horse never settled and was beaten before the straight. Then at Chepstow for his seasonal reappearance, he toyed with his opponents before almost throwing it away at the last. That was off a mark of 146 and he will need to show considerable improvement on the bare form.
However, Chepstow was only his fourth completed start over hurdles. He has always been held in seriously high regard at Ditcheat. He will be tuned to the minute, in spite of the freeze, with the Nicholls facilities. He will have his optimum conditions, unlike many of his rivals, and most pertinently, this will be his Champion Hurdle.
Escort'men EW (9/1 generally)
Sunday Indo Sport