This year’s King George is building toward a race that simply must not be missed. Even the briefest of glances at the entries is enough to make one salivate.
If the market is any guide, the race trophy is already headed back to Ditcheat, just as it has on a previous 11 occasions through the efforts of great steeplechasers like See More Business, Kauto Star, Silvianaco Conti, Clan des Obeaux and Frodon. The champion trainer is four-handed in the race, with Charlie Hall winner favourite Bravemansgame, Hitman, Pic d’Orhy and the enthusiastic Frodon, who will be re-united with regular rider Bryony Frost, back from injury as racing returns this week.
There was an assuredness about Bravemansgame’s victory in the Charlie Hall that swept him to favouritism in short order. He had Ahoy Senor and Eldorado Allen behind him that day, but the recent history of the Charlie Hall is not littered with Gold Cup or King George winners, only candidates. He will have to improve again and his official rating of 161 leaves him needing improvement to win.
Hitman has a rating 1lb lower after narrowly being touched off in the Old Roan at Aintree back in October. He was a well-backed winner of a graduation chase at Haydock last month, but this is the deep end. Again, were he not in the Nicholls camp, his odds might be longer than the 4/1 generally available.
Frodon knows his way around Kempton already, having won this race for Bryony Frost in 2020, and there is little doubt that he and Frost are well suited to one another with a string of wins to their belt, including a splendid weight-carrying performance in the Badger Beer Handicap in November. Frodon was no match for Protektorat in the small field Betfair Chase however, and his days at the highest level may be numbered, cruel as it is to admit it.
Candidate number four is Pic d’Orhy, winner of the 7 runner Peterborough Chase last month at Huntingdon, where Millers Bank was behind him. On the face of it, he has a little to find, but he may yet be withdrawn for an easier target.
There is little doubt that Nicholls holds something back for Christmas, a time of year he excels. Despite the shutdown for the weather, his string is firing on all cylinders, with as good a strike rate as anyone in the business. You could certainly do worse than back any of his runners.
Nicholls’ one time protege is also a stable on fire this autumn, banging in big Saturday winners as if they are going out of fashion. Dan Skelton is the man most likely presently to topple Nicholls from his champion’s perch, and fields Protektorat, who turned up the heat on Henry de Bromhead’s Gold Cup winner A Plus Tard in some style in the Betfair Chase. That 11l rout also left Eldorado Allen and Frodon in its wake, and on ratings alone, Protektorat should be favourite. He is many people’s fancy as the champion long distance chaser elect, but Kempton is very different to the galloping tracks of Haydock or Cheltenham, and the ground is its compelling factor; good ground is standard fare at Kempton and Protektorat has to date not won on ground faster than Good to Soft. Is this his Achilles’ heel?
Venetia Williams has two entered, at opposite ends of the betting market. L’Homme Pressé has been the great white hope for the resurgence of British steeplechasing to counter the Irish since he won the Brown Advisory at last season’s Festival, with Ahoy Senor behind. Those positions were reversed 3 weeks later at Aintree, since when these two rivals have avoided each other. L’Homme Pressé’s record this season is impeccable – one from one. He won the Rehearsal Chase comfortably, but what did he beat that day? It was an excellent placement by his trainer to win a valuable prize without sizing up to anything comparable. On his rating alone, he has the beating of several of these, including the Nicholls’ trio but his 2/1 price doesn’t appeal.
Of more interest is Venetia Williams’ other contender. Royal Pagaille has won the last two runnings of the Peter Marsh in Haydock mud each January, and this may yet be his target again. But with a rating of 164, only Protektorat has his measure if he brings out his A game on his seasonal bow. At prices up to 25/1, he represents a value each way bet.
Ireland won this last year with Tornado Flyer but the Irish record in this race is weak. The Leopardstown Chase in Dublin provides a suitable alternative without crossing the Irish Sea in mid-winter. Nevertheless, this year’s two entries provide a cross-channel conundrum.
Envoi Allen had the likes of Conflated and Kemboy behind him when winning the Ladbrokes Champion Chase at Down Royal in October. He would be an enormously popular winner for the de Bromhead family after the tragic loss of their son a few months ago.
Of more appeal is recent Aintree winner Noble Yeats, yet another top flight animal in the Waley-Cohen colours. Noble Yeats certainly seems to like Aintree. After his Grand National win in April, he returned there last month for a convincing victory in the Grade II Many Clouds Chase over the Mildmay fences. He has earned a chance to make his case among the top three milers.
Races like this only happen twice a year. Now that the snow has gone, we look set for an uninterrupted Christmas racing week. Make the most of it, and enjoy the thrill of the King George.