With all due respect to the rest of the field, today’s big race at Kempton is a straight duel between stablemates Cue Card and Thistlecrack. Not since the halcyon days of the Kauto Star v Denman rivalry have we had such a treat: This truly is a Christmas cracker.
Cue Card won this race 12 months ago and returns to Kempton having produced an arguably career best display in his most recent run, when hammering the returning Coneygree by 15 lengths in gruelling conditions in the Betfair Chase at Haydock last month.
He is without a doubt a superb horse and his longevity – he won the Champion Bumper at the Cheltenham Festival as far back as 2010 – can only be admired.
He would surely have gone very close in the Cheltenham Gold Cup last March had he not fallen three out and the evidence of his most recent run suggests he remains as enthusiastic and talented as ever just a few days short of his 11th birthday.
Indeed, it’s safe to say that if he repeats his Haydock display Thistlecrack will need to be every bit as good as his potential suggests he could be to take the scalp of the reigning champ.
However, as good as he’s been over the past 12 months, Cue Card hasn’t managed to post stellar back-to-back displays. He fell in the Gold Cup at Cheltenham, bounced back to win the Betfred Bowl in tremendous style at Aintree before finishing last season with a lacklustre showing when fourth in the Punchestown Gold Cup.
He then began this season with a laboured display when finishing third in the Charlie Hall at Wetherby before producing that imperious performance in the Betfair.
His price suggests he’s ultra-consistent but the evidence of his record over the past year refutes that and his inconsistency has to be a concern for his supporters.
They might also be worried about his record going right-handed. Cue Card has only won one of his last seven races at a right-handed track and given his undoubted ability that has to be off-putting.
Admittedly, that sole win came in this race but last year’s King George was a slightly odd affair. Don Cossack never travelled but was still in with a chance of winning when he crashed out two from home while long-time leader Vautour jumped left throughout but still looked to have the race in the bag until his stamina appeared to ebb away in the final 50 yards.
This is not to denigrate Cue Card’s achievement in getting up on the line to snatch victory but there is a legitimate argument that Kempton isn’t his best track. After all, last year’s King George win came in his fourth crack at the race.
Thistlecrack also has questions to answer and this is, by a long distance, his toughest task yet. He has to take down a talented, experienced and battle-hardened rival.
And on just his fourth start over fences too. Can he defy his inexperience? Will his jumping stand up to the test in a race that is invariably run at a blistering pace? These are legitimate questions but the suspicion is that this horse is a bit of a superstar.
He was imperious over hurdles last season, winning all five starts including the World Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival. His narrowest winning margin was six lengths.
As a consequence, his debut over fences was eagerly anticipated and he produced a fine display on his debut at Chepstow in October. He then went to Cheltenham where he again won but one bad blunder raised doubts about his jumping.
However, his most recent start, at Newbury, was so flawless that Joe Tizzard, the trainer’s son and assistant, described it as being “as good as I’ve ever seen a novice”.
Now, he faces a far stiffer task but my expectation is he’ll rise to the challenge and prove he is indeed the real deal.
The decision to run Thistlecrack in the King George means the Kauto Star Novices Chase, formerly the Feltham, has a far more open look to it.
Frodon was an impressive winner of Caspian Caviar Gold Cup but that race was in gruelling conditions just 17 days ago and that is a worry.
No Irish-trained horse has won this race but that could change this year as Anibale Fly, owned by JP McManus and trained by Tony Martin, looks a more than useful sort. Anibale Fly finished last season by winning a competitive handicap at the Punchestown Festival and began this season with a taking success on his chasing debut at Navan.
Last time out, he found only the classy Coney Island too good in the Drinmore Novice Chase. He needs to improve to win today but there might just be improvement in him.
Willie Mullins’ decision to take Vroum Vroum Mag out of the Christmas Hurdle simplifies the task facing Yanworth and the favourite really should deliver today.
Yanworth has only tasted defeat in one of his last six runs and given the negative vibes surrounding Annie Power and Faugheen, odds of 10/1 for the Champion Hurdle next March look more than a little appealing. Expect that price to be significantly shorter by close of business today.
The New One was impressive when beating old rival My Tent Or Yours at Cheltenham earlier this month and he looks the most likely to keep Yanworth honest.
Favourite backers can also collect in the opening race, the 32Red Casino Novices Hurdle, as Jenkins looks a class above his rivals.