It has been a very interesting couple of days of post-Christmas racing in the UK and Ireland. A number of big races on both sides of the Irish Sea have been run, with potential Cheltenham Festival stars showing their hand, perhaps providing clues about their chances in March. The biggest race was the King George VI Chase at Kempton Park on St Stephen's Day.
This race was highly anticipated by many as a clash mainly between the two shorter priced horses, Vautour and Don Cossack. As is so often the case in horse racing, these two did not have it all their own way, with a rejuvenated Cue Card ensuring his nose was in front at the winning post. Whip bans for the riders of Cue Card and Vautour will not be discussed, as a number of other commentators have already done so elsewhere.
It's quite amazing to realise that the Colin Tizzard trained Cue Card has now won nine of his total 21 chase starts (42% strike rate) and finished in the top three on fifteen occasions (71% top three strike rate). His prize money total is now creeping up towards the £1 million mark. However, having won both the Betfair Chase at Haydock and now the 2015 edition of the King George VI Chase, if he can also win the Cheltenham Gold Cup, a further £1 million, on offer for the first time this year from the Jockey Club for the Chase Triple Crown, will also be added to his tally. Hopefully, the Jockey Club has decent insurance. Cue Card has improved even further from previous seasons, where he failed to win the King George VI Chase in two earlier attempts. His breathing operation must account for much of this improvement. Can he win the Gold Cup? It will be his biggest challenge to date this year, but this writer's antepost bet at 13.50 is now sitting pretty, with all major bookmakers quoting Cue Card at prices between 7.0 and 9.0.
What to do with Vautour? After looking the likely winner on Boxing Day, watching a replay of the race shows he appeared to fall into a bottomless pit in the last 100 yards. Cue Card then came over the top to win. This does not bode well for his 3 mile chances especially the Cheltenham Gold Cup, but one would also worry about his stamina in the 2 mile 5 furlong Ryanair Chase. Throughout the King George he once again jumped noticeably to the left. Running in the other direction will certainly assist at Cheltenham, but the stiff rise towards the finishing post is unlikely to help if he can't stay 3 miles around a flat Kempton. However, it may be that his trainer, Willie Mullins, left something still to be revealed, biding his time for the biggest jumping stage.
Another alternative option could be to race Vautour in an even shorter event. The Queen Mother Champion Chase is looking particularly weak this year. It's fantastic to see Sprinter Sacre winning again, but he is only winning Grade 2 events against what appears to be limited opposition. Vautour's high cruising speed could seriously suit the shorter 2 mile challenge. At the time of writing, the Betfair Exchange has offers available to be matched at 13.50 for Vautour in the Champion Chase, which feels like a more attractive gamble than 3.1 for the Ryanair Chase.
Don Cossack fell at the second last fence. Would he have won? Obviously it is now impossible to categorically say one way or the other. At the time of his fall, he was well behind Vautour and slightly behind Cue Card. He had also been pushed along, somewhat off the bridle, prior to this. This horse also fell in the 2014 Grade 1 RSA Chase at Cheltenham. His mistake at the second last fence of the 2015 Ryanair Chase probably ruined any chance in that race, even though he rallied strongly to finish third. If Don Cossack can jump cleanly, he has to remain a solid Gold Cup chance, but horses who make jumping mistakes when the pressure is applied are always a risky venture.
Of the other finishers, Al Ferof in third was the FormBet value bet of the day, and returned a decent Betfair place dividend of 4.0. He didn't do all that much wrong, jumping well, taking an inside run when it was available, making up ground over the final four furlongs, but was nowhere near the class of the first two finishers and Don Cossack.
Smad Place was ridden with surprising tactics. Rather than his usual front running style, he was held just off the pace behind Vautour and Silvaniaco Conti for much of the race. Connections only know why this unusual style was adopted, but one can only surmise they felt the high tempo of Vautour would prove to be too much. Smad Place probably does still have a decent chance in something like the 2016 Ryanair Chase, if Vautour does not follow that route.
The fast pace does appear to have been the downfall for previous two-time winner Silviniaco Conti. Running nose to nose with Vautour for much of the race probably accounted for his tailing off and pulling up. Silviniaco Conti has not been able to match better horses, such as Cue Card, this season and perhaps he is now well past his best at 10 years of age. Could there be a magic breathing operation in his near future too? That is about the only way one could see him win any Grade 1 race at Cheltenham in 2016.
Overall, a thrilling 2015 King George VI Chase, won by Cue Card. Three miles and only a head separated the first two past the post. Antepost bettors have probably missed the Cue Card prompt for Cheltenham, but the potential £1 million Chase Triple Crown payout in only its first year will certainly help promote the concept. If Vautour heads to the Queen Mother Champion Chase, a race trainer Willie Mullins has never won, there are still very good prices available.