Paul Nicholls has already collected the William Hill King George VI Chase more times than any trainer in history and he believes Silviniaco Conti and Al Ferof hold equally good chances of providing his eighth winner at Kempton on Thursday.
Only two horses, See More Business and Kauto Star, were responsible for his run of success, and his young pair of chasers are ushering in a new era at Ditcheat.
Silviniaco Conti, who ended up losing his way after a scintillating performance in the Betfair Chase last year, was beaten by Grands Crus on his previous visit to the Sunbury course in the 2011 Feltham, but is expected to relish the dampening conditions.
Noel Fehily’s mount was third back at Haydock last month for the Betfair and must again take on the first and second, Cue Card and Dynaste.
Al Ferof, who is to be partnered by Daryl Jacob, made light of a year’s absence when winning a two-runner event at Ascot but is trying a distance half a mile further than he has ever attempted before.
“They’re both well and worked nicely last week,” said Nicholls.
“Everything is on schedule. I think the rain at Kempton will definitely help Silviniaco Conti, you’d be worried it wouldn’t suit him so well round there if it was quick.
“Al Ferof is well, there is a bit of a doubt at the trip on softer ground but he’s by Dom Alco, they stay well, and he looked like he was staying on up the hill when winning the Paddy Power last year. I can’t split them really.”
Cue Card was a lacklustre fifth, beaten 20 lengths by Long Run, last year, but since then managed to win the Ryanair Chase at Cheltenham before issuing firm proof he stays three miles at Haydock.
Colin Tizzard’s star was also unable to manage better than third when attempting to retain Exeter’s Haldon Gold Cup on his reappearance.
“We’re absolutely delighted with him and he came out of the Haydock race very well,” Tizzard said.
“I thought he was nearly unbeatable at Exeter, but apparently the last win in a handicap off his rating was Denman (2009 Hennessy) so that puts it into perspective. He didn’t jump as well as he could have, for whatever reason, but he put that to bed at Haydock.
“The race brought him on and we were a bit harder on him. He takes it ever so well.
“He looked as though he’s a dour stayer. Most Champion Bumper horses have ended up three-milers or three-mile plus and at Haydock he was in his comfort zone when the rest were going flat out.
“It was the first time he had run over (three miles), in last year’s King George, it wasn’t his day but he put that to bed for the rest of the season.”
David Pipe is expecting some improvement from Dynaste, especially with the deteriorating ground.
He told At The Races: “It was our first run of the season (at Haydock) and we’d like to think we can get a little bit more out of him.
“He was very impressive in the Feltham last year, so obviously he likes the track and if this rain keeps falling, I think that will probably play to our strengths as well.
“He wasn’t good enough on the day last season at Cheltenham, but I’m not sure you saw the real Dynaste there.
“It was great to end the season winning at Aintree and he put in a career-best last time at Haydock, so he must be improving.
“We haven’t really looked much further than the King George. I expect he’ll have an entry in the Gold Cup and I expect he’ll have an entry in the Ryanair.”
Nicholls’ great rival Nicky Henderson saddles dual King George winner Long Run, who has something to prove after the Charlie Hall and Betfair Chase and is fitted with a visor for the first time.
Stablemate Riverside Theatre, the former runner-up and recent Peterborough Chase hero, wears both blinkers and a hood.
Long Run often wore cheekpieces before and owner Robert Waley-Cohen is enjoying the lack of expectation which has accompanied him to Kempton in the past.
“I love being under the radar this year,” he said.
“He has won three times and been second once at Kempton so it’s a course that suits him. I think the older he gets, the longer it takes him to get fit but he is jumping much better than he did in his younger days.
“He needs a good, fast pace. I never thought Cue Card would stay three miles the way he did at Haydock, so hats off to the Tizzard family – he’s entitled to go there as the favourite.”
Martin Keighley’s Champion Court led much of the way 12 months ago until weakening for fourth and was only beaten half a length by Riverside Theatre after a fine effort at Huntingdon.
“He’s mad fresh actually, which is a good sign, I didn’t know if the King George would be an option but he came out of the Peterborough so well, it’s worth a go,” said Keighley.
“Although it’s raining, I don’t think it will be as bad as the ground was last year, where he travelled like the winner turning in and didn’t quite get home.
“We’ll ride him a bit differently this year, take our time on him, and it he can get in the first four, it would be great.”
The sole Irish raider is Mount Benbulben, who unseated his rider on his first step outside novice company at Down Royal.
“He’s in good form and we’re hopeful he’ll have a good each-way chance,” said trainer Gordon Elliott.
Last year’s runner-up Captain Chris was ruled after suffering a minor injury during a schooling session on Monday morning.
Trainer Philip Hobbs said: “He won’t be running on Boxing Day. He banged a joint schooling, it’s nothing serious but he won’t be running.
“I hope he will now run in the new williamhill.com Chase at Kempton on January 11.”
Hobbs and the Whateley family will still be represented by solid course performer Menorah, and the trainer added: “He runs and is in good form.”
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