Declan Rix

Over the Christmas period heading into Boxing Day, Declan Rix wonders should a good King George have been even better this season.

  • Tuesday 24 December
  • Blog
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A GOOD KING GEORGE THAT SHOULD HAVE BEEN EVEN BETTER

It may only be a six-horse race this year, but the 2019 Ladbrokes King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day, will once again, be unmissable. The tape will fly across at 3:05 and invite the best horse in training, in terms of raw ability, in Britain and Ireland, for me anyway, to potentially make-all.

That of course is Cyrname (13/8), the right-handed, Ascot monster who is a legit 170+ performer, for all, at the moment, his three best runs have come at the Berkshire track over intermediate trips.

Officially, he is rated 177, a colossal level of ability, a standard rare in the total thoroughbred population. He’s a horse who should be appreciated in that regard, as well as hoped that he can produce the ability he has shown in his last three runs away from Ascot and left-handed down the line.

But first, Kempton, and a maiden engagement over three miles, against the likes of Lostintranslation (2/1). As the betting suggests, the Betfair Chase winner is the rival Paul Nicholls’s favourite should fear most. The strong-travelling, slick-jumping seven-year-old has progressed from his classy novice chase campaign, coming of age at Haydock when beating Bristol De Mai on the grey’s home patch.

The son of Flemensfirth has thrived since stepping up to three miles, having competed so well with the classy and turn-of-foot-gifted Defi Du Seuil over two-and-a-half last season. That JLT form from the 2019 Cheltenham Festival now looks strong, but with Colin Tizzard’s inmate clearly better over staying trips, his form has gone to an even higher level this campaign.

A higher level than achieved in last season’s King George victory will likely be needed from Clan Des Obeaux (11/2), if Cyrname and Lostintranslation run their respective races. Kempton is the track that he produced his career best effort at however, and still only being seven-years-old, within a physical frame that also suggests there is more to come, any slip ups from the market leaders may well be punished by Paul Nicholls’s “second runner” in the race.

Sam Twiston-Davies comes in for the ride on the horse that beat a then ten-year-old Thistlecrack in the 2018 running. That form doesn’t look strong enough on paper to win this year, but, to be fair, I thought the son of Kapgarde idled a touch in front that day, meaning the effort was possibly worth an upgrade.

If you believe this, on top of factoring in his ideal prep run at Down Royal, maybe he doesn’t have as much to find with the second favourite, as the prices suggest?

The remaining trio, in Footpad (11/1), Thistlecrack (18/1) and Aso (66/1) make up the field. Willie Mullins’s Irish raider is an interesting runner, solely based on his perfect five for five novice chase campaign. He split opinion having won a messy Arkle, but whatever way you cut it, he was still a 14-length winner of a Cheltenham Festival Grade 1 and deserved his rating in the mid-160s.

Last season was a nightmare for the son Creachadoir though, having suffered multiple overreaches in his opening pair of runs, when beaten at odds of 4/7 and 1/1. Despite that, he was still sent off 7/2 favourite for the 2019 Ryanair, a sign of his class, but ran disappointingly in eighth having bled.

He probably just about ran to a mark in the 160s when beaten by Simply Ned at Leopardstown last Christmas, so the ability, despite an interrupted campaign, was still there, if not as high as his novice chase season.

Whether he can get back to the 170 level he suggested he could potentially get to once upon a time, over a trip that could stretch a seemingly fragile body, I have my doubts.  He at least looked good in his prep at Thurles, but that was a race that fell apart, and runner-up Mala Beach is a long way behind the likes of a Cyrname, Lostintranslation and Clan Des Obeaux.

The injury-interrupted Thistlecrack hasn’t looked the same horse since his early year setback in 2017, but still ran a blinder to finish second in last season’s King George. It’s a case of what could’ve been had he not got injured, but while there would be great scenes if he won, it would be somewhat disappointing if he took the Boxing Day highlight.

Aso, as his price suggests, looks to have his work cut out.

WHAT IFS

What I noticed having gone through the full King George field this season, the six-runner race (!), and maybe you picked up on it from the above, is every horse declared this year has something to prove, some obviously more than others.

With that in mind, it is so disappointing both set of connections involved with Altior and Bristol De Mai have failed to be brave and dared to win what is the second most prestigious staying chase in the British calendar, seemingly taking a long-term view of the 2020 Cheltenham Festival instead.

Joining names like Desert Orchid, The Fellow, One Man, See More Business, Best Mate, Kicking King, Kauto Star and Long Run simply did not appeal enough to run; instead, significantly lesser Grade 2 assignments in the Desert Orchid Chase (Altior) and the Cotswold Chase (Bristol De Mai) were disappointingly chosen ahead of winning one of National Hunt’s greatest races.

So many race fans seem to be content with the above decisions, agreeing – and they are entitled to that view – but some also moan about how uncompetitive graded races outside of the Cheltenham Festival have sometimes become (not true of this King George), but yet are happy for two genuine top-class animals, one of them being a superstar of the game in Altior, to miss a huge race and tackle significantly inferior opposition? I just don’t get it.

Can you imagine what Altior, and Bristol De Mai, would’ve added to what already looks a good King George? Yes, some will say they didn’t fancy either to win, or maybe even run well, but no matter the strength of your opinion, it is only that, not fact. This goes for all of us.

Anything can happen in this game and with question marks over every horse declared this year, I do wonder when 3.15 comes on Boxing Day, will connections of Altior and Bristol De Mai, utter the words, “what if we ran?”.

Because currently, what I am asking myself is this:

“What if Cyrname doesn’t stay and had too hard a race at Ascot last time? Can he be as good at Kempton as he is at Ascot?”

“What if Lostintranslation doesn’t jump as well going right-handed, like he did at Sandown in the Scilly Isles Novices' Chase last season, for all he was straighter at Carlisle this campaign against lesser opposition?”

“What if Clan Des Obeaux doesn’t improve on last season’s King George win, in what was considered an average renewal?”

Are you telling me all or some of the above couldn’t play out, in a game as mad as horse racing; and thoroughbreds with the ability of Altior and Bristol De Mai couldn’t potentially have capitalised had they lined up?

The case for Altior is clear, fundamentally, he has a higher level of ability at his peak than everything in the King George, comfortably too. Even now, while on the down grade, he is still a better horse than everything bar Cyrname.

Of course, stamina is a doubt, but the trip is also an unknown for the 13/8 favourite, the 13/8 favourite Altior was just two lengths behind last time out - and it wasn’t stamina that beat Altior behind Cyrname at Ascot.

On his first run of the season as a soon-to-be ten-year-old, is Altior not entitled to improve for his first run, especially if you believe the paddock watchers at Ascot that day suggest Cyrname looked a much fitter horse?

The case for Bristol De Mai is not as clear cut, and takes more convincing, but putting it simply, he was just 1½ lengths behind the King George second favourite (Lostintranslation, 2/1) on his own seasonal debut.

OK, the grey had total run of the race from a tactical point of view over Lostintranslation and the superiority of the victory probably underplays the Tizzard horse a touch, but to counter that, the ground wasn’t soft enough for Bristol De Mai to show his best, and Daryl Jacob didn’t turn the race into enough of a stamina test.

Some have said Bristol De Mai doesn’t act at Kempton, but that is just nonsense on what we have seen. Nigel Twiston-Davies’s inmate has only run there twice, his form figures reading 6 and F, both coming in past King Georges. OK, in black and white it doesn’t look great, but I’d strongly argue he never had the type of prep runs needed to win a King George.

In 2017, he headed to Kempton on the back of a truly colossal performance, when beating Cue Card by 57 lengths on bottomless Haydock ground in a superb time. That year, he had quite simply left his King George behind at Haydock and looked flat.

Last season, it was a similar if slightly kinder story. Having beaten Native River by four lengths in a quick time at Haydock in the Betfair Chase, he headed to Kempton on the back of another tough run, although not quite as tough as 2017.

On much quicker ground, he likely didn’t have as hard a race going into the Festive period, but we never got to find out as he fell in the straight before heading out on the final circuit.

This season however, I would argue he finally had the perfect tee-up going into the King George. OK, it was disappointing he was beaten in this year’s Betfair Chase, but in a relatively slow time for the grade on good to soft ground, he didn’t have anywhere near as a hard a race coming into this season’s King George.

Furthermore, with the going currently soft at Kempton, with more rain forecast, he finally may have gotten his ground on the back of having a much kinder preparation. The classy grey not going is so un-Twiston-Davies like, but sadly, just like Altior, we will now never know how they would’ve fared.

Should Cyrname, Lostintranslation or Clan Des Obeaux fail to fire for any reason, a penny for connections’ thoughts concerning Altior and Bristol De Mai…..

Declan Rix
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