December 24, 2018
Kempton 26-27 Dec Winter Festival
It’s fun to get presents and eat your own weight in turkey but any racing fan knows that Christmas is just a prelude to the big race at Kempton the next day, the King George VI Chase. The midwinter championship of steeplechasing, it does a better job of star-making than the Cheltenham Gold Cup; Desert Orchid and Kauto Star won it nine times between them.
Might Bite is trying to start his own Christmas tradition by repeating his victory in the race of last year. The bookmakers have him as favourite but he has an off-putting variety of ways to get beaten, including at Kempton two years ago when he jumped into the last rather than over it.
In a field packed with quality, there’s no shortage of fairy-tale stories to engage the romantics. Thistlecrack and Coneygree, two old stagers trying to rediscover past glories, are said to be as healthy as they’ve been for years. Meanwhile, Ruth Jefferson hopes to win with Waiting Patiently, the horse she inherited when her father, Malcolm, died just 10 months ago.
While the King George requires endurance, raw speed will also be on show at Kempton. The Christmas Hurdle, for the fastest animals in jump racing, will surely fall to Buveur D’Air for a second consecutive year.
Leopardstown 27-30 Dec Christmas Festival
The south Dublin track stages four days of quality action, starting on Boxing Day, or St Stephen’s Day, depending on which side of the Irish Sea you’re from. The depth and range of competition almost make it a parallel Cheltenham Festival, which, of course, is the ultimate aim for many of those taking part.
The climax will be Friday’s Savills Chase, which is how Ireland’s version of the King George is now known, having previously been the Ericsson and the Lexus. British-trained runners like Tidal Bay and Bobs Worth have been good enough to plunder this prize but Ireland is full of talented jumps horses just now and it seems that no Brits will be brave enough to make the journey this time.
This first running of the Savills should provide a rare sighting of Presenting Percy, favourite for the Cheltenham Gold Cup who is based in County Galway with the mysteriously low-profile, publicity averse trainer Pat Kelly. Despite having fewer than 20 horses in his yard, Kelly has managed to train a winner at each of the past three Festivals and it will be no surprise if he has Presenting Percy straight enough to win this one.
The Leopardstown crowds will also get the chance to see equine stars like Apple’s Jade, Footpad and Faugheen but the second biggest race will surely be Saturday’s Ryanair Hurdle. The vaunted Samcro bids to restore his reputation with a first success since March, while Willie Mullins could choose to take him on with Melon, Sharjah or Laurina.
An alternative yuletide comparison would be with those epic films that always find their way back on to the schedules in late December, the likes of Ben-Hur or Gone With The Wind, because two laps of Chepstow can take a dreadfully long time when the going is soft and plot development can be slow to materialise. Speed is of marginal use to a Welsh National horse, whose main job is to just keep plodding onwards.
Last year’s race made headlines when the winning jockey, the 16-year-old James Bowen, turned out to be barely older than the horse, Raz De Maree, a 13-year-old. Raz De Maree is back once more but probably with a new jockey, one whose inexperience allows him to “claim” weight off the veteran’s back. Bowen has had so many winners that he long since burned through his claim.
If there is any justice, victory this time would go to Folsom Blue, who would surely have won the Irish Grand National in April but for being knocked sideways at the last fence. As with Might Bite in the King George, settling for the favourite in this race comes with some considerable risk because it is Elegant Escape, whose jumping can become rather ragged in the later stages.
At least this Welsh National should be run on schedule rather than delayed until January as has happened four times in the past eight years. If the forecast is right, neither frost nor waterlogging should be a problem this time.
Cheltenham New Year’s Day
Racing’s way of clearing its head on New Year’s Day is to head to the natural home of jump racing for seven quality contests that may offer many a clue to the Festival, now little more than two months away. The timetable offers little comfort to anyone who overdid it the night before, with the first race due to start at 12.15pm and the whole thing wrapped up by 4pm, but it is regularly a thrilling way into the new year for everyone else.
The highlight is the Dipper Novice Chase, which is typically fought over by classy ex-hurdlers still trying to find their feet over the larger obstacles. Recent winners like Yanworth, Whisper and Oscar Whisky fit that mould and similar types in Defi Du Seuil and Black Op could be lining up this time.
Add in the usual assortment of challenging Cheltenham handicaps, plus the track’s reliably convivial atmosphere, and you have the makings of a 1st of January that should be much better than most of the days that follow. Hopefully it will provide a happier experience for all jockeys than last year for the rider whose pre-race breath test was positive for alcohol. “I was in bed by midnight,” he protested. Which is possibly more than the stewards could say …