Alex Hammond: My Christmas Card
Boxing Day means the King George which for many years has been dominated by the Paul Nicholls trained Kauto Star. He is represented by his half brother Kauto Stone this time round who is a 8/1 shot behind 5/2 favourite Long Run.
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Long Run won this two seasons ago but had to settle for 2nd behind Kauto Star last term. He ran an encouraging race in the Betfair Chase last time out behind Silvinaco Conti and a return to this track with a run under his belt should give him a great chance. He is yet to finish out of the frame over fences and his stamina could be put to good use here. I'm not sure what it is about this horse, but he doesn't grab me and at the available prices I'd be happy to take him on.
Last season there were some smart novice chasers around and it will be interesting to see if they step up to the plate against the established chasers. Cue Card is one such horse and he is Sky Bet's 9/2 second favourite.
I love this horse and his novice form looks excellent, particularly his 2nd to Sprinter Sacre in the Arkle. He tries this 3 mile trip for the first time, but hopefully the configuration of the Surrey track will help him see out the trip.
He reappeared in the Haldon Gold Cup at Exeter where he jumped proficiently and won impressively. It could be that his Cheltenham target is the Ryanair Chase over 2 ½ miles, but I hope he can stretch his stamina and win this en-route.
Riverside Theatre runs well fresh and he was 2nd to stablemate Long Run a couple of seasons ago. He hasn't had too many chances to prove himself at this trip and the suspicion is that 2 ½ suits best. 10/1 shot Grands Crus isn't a certain runner, and his trainer David Pipe supplemented Junior for the race this week.
Grands Crus has undergone a breathing operation since his defeat in the Paddy Power for which he was being talked up as virtually unbeatable that day. Pipe will make a late decision about his participation but if he does line up he can run very well and his win in last season's Feltham shows the track suits him well. I really like Cue Card in this, but would have a saver on Grands Crus if he is declared for the Christmas showpiece.
The Christmas Hurdle is the next stepping stone to the Champion Hurdle, but once again these horses will be tackling conditions that are likely to be much different from Cheltenham in March. I hope Darlan can show us what he is made of as he begins his season against impressive Fighting Fifth winner Countrywide Flame.
Again the ground is the worry as he hasn't encountered conditions this testing before, whereas Countrywide Flame relished them at Newcastle. He is held in really high regard at the Henderson stable though and I'm going to take a chance that he copes with it.
At Leopardstown on the 26th the Grade 1 Racing Post Novice Chase looks to be a match between Arvika Ligeonniere and Oscars Well. I'm with the former here after the Willie Mullins trained horse won on his reappearance (and second start over fences) in the Drinmore Novice Chase at Fairyhouse. A drop back in trip won't inconvenience the selection who has taken well to fences.
The day after Boxing day the highlight at Chepstow is the Welsh National and this will be a real war of attrition over 3m 5 ½ furlongs in testing ground. There has to be some threat that the meeting could be abandoned given the forecast and already saturated ground, so if it does go ahead it will be a proper test.
I really fancy Teaforthree in this and I fancy him here despite his price of 7/2 favourite. He won the 4 miler at the Cheltenham festival and has been geared towards this race this season. He won his novice chase at this track on heavy ground so hopefully the conditions shouldn't phase him. If he does win this for Rebecca Curtis he would become the first Welsh trained horse to win the Welsh National since 1965.
What a result it would be for Victor Dartnall if his Giles Cross (12/1) could finally get his head in front in this race. He has finished 2nd in it for the past two seasons and would be a boost for the stable if he could win. The yard had been forced to shut down after an outbreak of equine herpes which claimed the lives of several horses but they are back in business now and need some good luck now. The horse certainly won't mind a slog in this ground and he should run well once again.
Paul Nicholls has 3 in it including top weight Tidal Bay (12/1), Michel le Bon (8/1) and 20/1 shot Royal Charm. If Tidal Bay does run he will keep the majority of these out the handicap. However, Nicholls has said recently that the Lexus Chase is a more likely destination as he wouldn't appreciate a slog on this ground at this stage of the season.
Michel le Bon ran an encouraging race in the Badger Ales at Wincanton last time out, but he is unproven on ground like this. He has a handy weight though. He has only had 4 starts over fences and his trainer has said in the past he wouldn't mind soft ground, but this is likely to be an exception.
I could go through several of these, but to be honest, it's Teaforthree all the way and he'll do for me. AP McCoy will be hoping Tidal Bay comes out of the race otherwise he will be forced to do 10.4 on the favourite, which is getting down to his lightest weight.
There is of course some superb action in Ireland over the festive period too and there are a few horses I'll be keeping an eye on. Also on the 27th I'll be hoping Waaheb can continue his hurdle career as he began with a win in the Grade 1 Future Champions Novice Hurdle at Leopardstown.
Problems delayed his hurdles career last season and he didn't make his debut over obstacles until October when he won easily at Fairyhouse. That was his first start for 538 days and his trainer Dermot Weld has given him plenty of time to get over it.
Staying at Leopardstown there is another puzzle to unravel for punters, the Paddy Power Chase, over an extended 3 miles. Nicky Henderson's Prince of Pirates (14/1) is one of 4 entries from the UK which also include Cannington Brook for Colin Tizzard (25s), and the Jonjo O'Neill pair of Alfie Sherrin (16/1) and Valley View (20s).
It's hard to take a view until the field is whittled down at declaration stage but Sky Bet have 10/1 joint favourites in Glam Gerry and Like Your Style for Colm Murphy and Edward Harty respectively. On the same card the Grade 1 Dial a Bet Chase has attracted some of chasing's power players, Sizing Europe looks set to go off odds on in the 2m 1f contest if he runs here in preference to the Lexus Chase the following day.
Onto the Lexus Chase then which takes place on the 28th and sees the clash of the two Irish trained heavyweights Flemenstar and Sir des Champs.
This will be a first try at 3 miles for Flemenstar after he beat Sir des Champs over 2 ½ in the John Durkan last time out. I think the step up in trip will suit the runner up and this is a good chance for him to reverse those placings.
Flemenstar also had the benefit of a run when they met earlier this month and although Flemenstar is an outstanding horse, in these conditions his stamina may be put to the test. I think this race could be one of the match ups of the whole Christmas period and I can't wait to see them take each other on again. I backed Sir des Champs for the Gold Cup nine months ago and hope he can show his superiority over this sort of trip.
Cue Card in the King George @ 9/2 with Sky Bet
Darlan in the Christmas Hurdle
Arvika Ligeonniere in the Racing Post Novice Chase at Leopardstown
Waaheb in the Future Champions Novice Hurdle at Leopardstown
Sir des Champs in the Lexus Chase