Al Ferof to be crowned King
Lydia Hislop takes an in-depth look at the King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day, before revealing her 1-2-3.
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The weather provides an additional complication to what is already an intriguing William Hill King George VI Chase. It makes the question asked of Al Ferof's unproven stamina that much greater, but this is his opportunity to step forward as a new staying force.
The past 12 months have not been straightforward for this grey, whose bid for last year's King George was scuppered by the discovery of a tendon injury. However, his return to action last month was encouraging and there are reasons to think he might actually improve at three miles.
Two of his finest moments have come at Cheltenham: in March 2011, when he won the Supreme in the style of a stayer, outpaced and sticking on strongly, and in November 2012, when producing a career-best effort stepped up to 2m5f for the first time over fences.
That day he rallied strongly up the final hill to see off Walkon by three lengths in soft ground, suggesting he is open to further improvement at staying trips.
His sire, Dom Alco, gets stayers. He produced the 1-2 in the 2011 Feltham, when Grand Crus beat Silviniaco Conti. Both horses have posted their best form at three miles and the latter, a stablemate, is one of Al Ferof's main rivals here.
Dom Alco's most notable stayer was a triple Grade One winner at three miles and the horse that carried Hales's silks to a narrow and emotional victory in the 2012 Grand National, Neptune Collonges.
At the racecourse where Hales had lost One Man 14 years earlier, he was overcome with joy and relief when this grey won the world's most famous race by a nose from Sunnyhillboy.
Having done what was asked of him, Neptune Collonges was immediately retired by Hales to enjoy a second career as a dressage horse. (He won his first basic test, performing incognito under his pet name of 'Nipper'. His true identity was only revealed to the judges after their scores were in.)
On that overwhelming day at Aintree, Daryl Jacob - not then number one jockey at Paul Nicholls' yard - drove the Hales colours to victory and he is again in the saddle here, bidding to win the race in which One Man famously triumphed twice in 1996.
Jacob will have been encouraged by Al Ferof's return from injury last month. Admittedly that eight-length defeat of French Opera in a match at Ascot was a glorified schooling session, but his rival proved himself to be in good form at Cheltenham subsequently and yet was brushed aside.
That also becomes an even better performance if it emerges that Al Ferof's preferred métier is as a stayer. If he gets three miles, his form says he'll be in the mix. If he improves for it, as argued, he not only wins but becomes a substantial challenger to the existing staying hierarchy.
Cue Card is an old rival. He beat Al Ferof in the 2010 Cheltenham Festival bumper and finished ahead of him (behind Sprinter Sacre) in the 2012 Arkle. Al Ferof took his scalp in the 2011 Supreme.
Colin Tizzard's star performer has currently out-achieved Al Ferof over fences and boasts the best form in the field. His Ryanair win was bettered by his second to Sprinter Sacre in the Melling Chase at Aintree, when putting up a proper fight.
This, in turn, was bettered by last month's impressive Betfair Chase success, when proving his stamina conclusively by powering home clear of Dynaste and Silviniaco Conti.
There is a theme, however, to these wins and those of his performances - including some victories - that don't quite match up, either on paper or for visual impact. Namely, his standout form is on left-handed tracks.
When going right-handed, as here at Kempton, his best form still gives him a chance but it doesn't place him ahead of his field. He seems more prone to errors on tracks with this orientation, as displayed when finishing tired after blundering badly at the first two fences and beaten 20 lengths in fifth in last year's King George.
Throw in Tizzard's murmurings about his stable form and it makes Cue Card easy to oppose at around 3/1.
Dynaste has seemed best served by flat tracks as a chaser, his top efforts coming when winning last year's Feltham by nine lengths from clumsy Hadrian's Approach, beating Third Intention in the Mildmay at Aintree and finishing second to Cue Card in the Betfair Chase.
He handles testing ground, his Haydock second was his seasonal debut and he will surely be thereabouts here. He remains vulnerable to a rival with a bit of class, however.
Silviniaco Conti was also running for the first time this term at Haydock and has claims to reversing his form with the winner and second, especially if the rains turn Kempton into a mudbath.
This is a horse that some argue - not necessarily including his then rider, Ruby Walsh - would have played a part bar for falling three out in the Gold Cup last March. If Al Ferof doesn't improve at the trip or finds the ground too soft, his stablemate will benefit.
Menorah is a fascinating contender, having become a tad mercurial as a chaser. He improved at the end of last season, finishing second to First Lieutenant at Aintree, when appearing to stay 3m1f, and to Champion Court in a competitive Cheltenham handicap, seeking to concede 17lb to the winner.
He won the rescheduled Peterborough at Kempton last year, beating Hunt Ball by three-and-a-half lengths, and handles testing ground, although trainer Philip Hobbs has always deemed him best on a sound surface. Making his seasonal debut here might not be an advantage, however. He has not been best fresh in the past.
Champion Court was unlucky in the Peterborough Chase last time out, losing by only half a length to Riverside Theatre after making crucial mistakes at the last two fences, the latter of which resulted in him becoming unbalanced and his saddle slipping. Jockey Ian Popham did well to put up such a fight in the circumstances.
This horse was pitching until three out in last year's King George until weakening markedly. The balance of his form at three miles, although far from extensive, suggests it stretches him.
Riverside Theatre inherited second behind Long Run in the 2011 King George, thanks to a two-out blunder from a tired Kauto Star. However, he's been below his best in his past five starts now, including when winning the Peterborough Chase in receipt of 6lb from the unfortunate second. That first-time blinker-and-hood combination will need to be transforming for him to figure.
Long Run has been a headline act at this meeting for the past four years, winning the 2009 Feltham, the following season's King George (staged in January), finishing second to Kauto Star later that year and rallying after a final-fence blunder to beat Captain Chris 12 months ago less easily than he should have done.
However, for a horse as consistently good as Long Run has been, his Charlie Hall fifth was unnervingly bad and, although his Betfair Chase fourth was better, it was still 21 lengths behind Cue Card and well below his best.
Every drop of rain enhances this thorough stayer's chances but the first-time visor will need to have a majorly revivifying effect.
The last remaining actor in this compelling King George is Mount Benbulben, whose Grade One Punchestown success last April marked him out as the best staying novice chaser of last season.
He has bundles of talent, is still improving, handles testing ground and is best suited by racing right-handed. However, he put in a not-uncharacteristic shoddy round of jumping at right-handed Down Royal last time. If he jumps cleanly here, he's overpriced but that's quite a sizeable if.
1 - Al Ferof
2 - Silviniaco Conti
3 - Dynaste