Long Run can reign again
Simon Holt previews the King George VI Chase and Christmas Hurdle at Kempton on Boxing Day.
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With conditions almost certain to be testing at Kempton, it will take stamina - as well as class - to win the William Hill King George V1 Chase on Boxing Day and past winner Long Run, the highest rated horse in the field, holds a favourite's chance.
The seven-year-old's career might not have quite continued on a widely anticipated upward trajectory since slamming Riverside Theatre in this race in January 2011 and winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup two months later, but he remains a high class chaser.
A reproduction of his staying-on second to a revitalised Kauto Star last year would probably be good enough for Long Run to claim a second King George, and this is a race which is renowned historically for multiple winners.
Although successful only once since his Gold Cup defeat of Denman and Kauto Star, the Nicky Henderson-trained French import has maintained a very high level of form and should improve for his reappearance second behind Silviniaco Conti (The Giant Bolster third) in the Betfair Chase at Haydock.
As has been the case on several occasions, Long Run looked a bit one-paced that day and I would like to see Sam Waley Cohen be very positive this time; against rivals who either have something to find on the form book or who are not guaranteed to stay, he holds all the aces and a front-running role may also improve the fluency of Long Run's jumping.
People tend to think that Kempton is an easy track but the three miles in this race always takes plenty of getting as the runners tend to go a stride faster in the early stages. You really need to get home and, both Cue Card and Riverside Theatre - the two horses nearest to Long Run in the betting - are not absolutely certain to see out every yard.
There is little doubt that Cue Card is a hugely talented horse; his second to Sprinter Sacre in the Arkle at Cheltenham in March was a super effort and he bolted up in the Haldon Gold Cup on his reappearance. But even his trainer Colin Tizzard is not certain he will stay here and his supporters are taking a chance.
My impression of Cue Card has always been of a horse with plenty of speed and this is his first attempt at three miles.
Riverside Theatre has 12 lengths to make up on Long Run on their meeting in this race two seasons ago and has also never won at three miles. That said, he has an excellent course record (four wins from five visits) and his Ryanair Chase win last March proves he is top class.
Lack of a recent run should not be a concern for the favourite's stable-companion who is best when fresh but he does need to put a well below-par effort at Aintree in April behind him; one assumes his Cheltenham exertions had taken their toll.
Others with questions to answer are Captain Chris, a weak-finishing third last year, Grands Crus who returns to the track after a wind operation and Kauto Star's half brother Kauto Stone who is 10lb adrift of Long Run on official ratings.
But one who looks a real danger is The Giant Bolster aboard whom Tony McCoy is an eyecatching booking. Just ahead of Long Run when second to Synchronised in the Gold Cup, and less than five lengths behind him in the Betfair Chase on his reappearance, there is little doubt that David Bridgwater's progressive chaser will stay and act in the ground.
However, with the exception of one novice hurdle win at Market Rasen, the seven-year-old has done all his racing left handed (Kempton goes the other way) and Cheltenham seems to be the course which truly inspires him.
So I take Long Run to win his second King George; he has the stamina to win and the form to win - and this is the day when we really find out if he's the horse he was in early 2011.
Kempton's other big Boxing Day feature is the William Hill Christmas Hurdle in which Darlan, one of last season's top novice hurdlers, makes his eagerly awaited reappearance.
This stunning looker was only second to Cinders And Ashes (who reopposes here) in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle at Cheltenham but then showed what he can really do when beating stable-companion Captain Conan at Aintree.
Ideally, Darlan would not be reappearing on ground this soft but time is running out with regard to a proper preparation for the Champion Hurdle and this course might suit him slightly better than my old favourite Countrywide Flame who thrashed Cinders And Ashes in the mud at Newcastle last month.
After that race, trainer John Quinn suggested that his admirable dual-purpose galloper would go to Leopardstown over Christmas as he felt that stiffer course would suit the horse better than Kempton - but there has clearly been a change of heart.
Back at Cheltenham (the scene of his Triumph Hurdle win) in March, I could see Countrywide Flame being a threat to all in the Champion Hurdle but Kempton may suit Darlan better.
It was ground conditions that seemed to explain a tame performance by Cinders And Ashes at Newcastle but he has won on soft and heavy in the past and one wouldn't know quite what to expect here.
Of the others, Dodging Bullets takes a step up in class after two Cheltenham victories this season, Get Me Out Of Here looks owner J P McManus's second string (McCoy rides Darlan) and Raya Star's best form has so far been in handicaps.