Gavin Beech takes an ante-post look at the King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day.
The 2015 King George Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day is building up to be a sensational clash between the old guard, headed by the likes of Cue Card and Silviniaco Conti, and the rising stars of the sport. It may seem a bit odd referring to Coneygree as a rising star given he won the Gold Cup last season, but remember, he did so as a novice.
Let’s start with last season’s other star novice chaser Vautour, who looked like the second coming when trouncing his rivals by 15 lengths in the JLT Novices’ Chase at Cheltenham in March, and his return at Ascot on Saturday was, understandably, eagerly anticipated. Despite the fact that he was favoured by the conditions of the race, he had to dig deep to see off Ptit Zig (who had the advantage of race fitness) but Ruby Walsh’s mount asserted in the closing stages to make a winning return.
Whilst some bookmakers weren’t particularly impressed (unchanged at a general 3-1 for the KG but edged out to 6-1 from 4-1 in places for the Gold Cup), it needs to be stressed that the runner-up is a really smart chaser who is thought of as a genuine Gold Cup contender by his trainer, Paul Nicholls. Paddock watchers at Ascot were unanimous with their opinion that Rich Ricci’s bold jumping 6yo looked in need of the run so make no mistake, this was a performance to be nothing but positive about and he’s going to be a major player on Boxing Day as long as the ground isn’t testing, although he’s an unlikely runner in those circumstances anyway.
Imperious Gold Cup hero Coneygree was pretty much faultless on his return at Sandown and although his preparation for the Hennessy hasn’t gone smoothly, it looks as though he will now still make that race. Carrying a big weight to victory in a potentially hot renewal of the Newbury showpiece would invoke memories of the great Denman, whose finest hour arguably came when winning the race off 11st 12lb in 2009, and Mark Bradstock’s unbeaten chaser would immediately shorten considerably for the King George, a race run on a track that would undoubtedly suit his style of running.
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Sprinter Sacre’s returned to something like his best really set the pulse racing last weekend but the chasing performance of the season so far came at Haydock on Saturday where Cue Card sauntered to victory in the Betfair Chase. He has looked a different horse this year after a successful operation on his trapped epiglottis and it was impossible not to be deeply impressed by the way he brushed aside Silviniaco Conti, a dual winner of that Grade One contest. That performance earned Cue Card a 3lb rise from the assessor, taking him to an official rating of 172, the equal of Coneygree. Not only is Colin Tizzard’s stable star a massive player in the King George, he’s now got to be considered a serious contender for Gold Cup glory.
Given what happened at Haydock on Saturday, it now looks almost impossible that Silviniaco Conti could beat Cue Card, but sport is never that straightforward and he’s won the last two runnings of the King George so we know he is extremely well suited by the demands of this race. Paul Nicholls said he was considering putting blinkers back on him at Kempton as he raced a little lazily at Haydock, and, barring accidents, he looks a certain runner which counts for a lot when you are looking to have an ante-post wager. He must have sound place prospects (at the very least) irrespective of who turns up on the day, and at 14-1 he simply looks too big.
We haven’t even mentioned the highest-rated chaser in Britain and Ireland, Don Cossack. Gordon Elliott’s four-time Grade One winner thrashed Cue Card by 26 lengths in the Melling Chase at Aintree this year but he’ll do well to repeat that feat given how much better the latter has looked this season. His jockey Bryan Cooper has gone on record recently saying that he thinks he’s the one they all have to beat in the big races this season and he’s got tons of top class form on flat right-handed tracks, so Kempton will be right up his street. He’s clearly a fearsome rival but, at the prices, I would just prefer to stick with the proven race form of Cue Card and Silviniaco Conti.
The supporting cast could be strong too, with the likes of Saphir Du Rheu, Ptit Zig, Djakadam, Road To Riches etc all in the mix, the list of high-class chasers who could potentially turn up at the Sunbury venue on Boxing Day is mouth-wateringly strong.
Coneygree’s performance in the Hennessy will go a long way to shaping the market for this race in December but from this range and at the current prices, Silviniaco Conti looks the value play.