NB: Nevada Gold (Wincanton 1.10)
The only racing certainty of the festive season is long gone, a runner in the 10.30am at Liverpool shown on BBC2 three days ago. Sadly, for anyone who didn't back the runner-up to Elizabeth Taylor in National Velvet - because of course, those vile, chauvinist stewards disqualified poor Velvet for falling off after the post - the task of finding a winner this Christmas seems more difficult than ever. And you can't even lean on the paddock rail and back the one whose stable-lad most resembles Mickey Rooney, for the simple reason that all stable lads seem to look like Mickey Rooney.
The King George VI Chase, the day's feature event, is the most competitive for several years. Ten runners are declared and only Second Schedual could fairly be called a surprise winner, but if most of them have a chance, it is fair to assume that a couple are overpriced. Sensible backers will ignore the obvious bets in favour of an animal at generous odds with every hope of, at the very least, making the frame.
So, forget Bradbury Star, Barton Bank, The Fellow and Travado. It sounds reckless, but while each has solid claims, there are equally sound reasons for opposing them at the odds on offer. Bradbury Star needs to be held up for one run at the leaders, but he failed to pass Barton Bank 12 months ago and at 9-4 he is a poor price to do so now. Last year's winner, meanwhile, tends to make the odd mistake (he fell in a novice chase here two years ago, and again on his reappearance at Wetherby in October). Recall also the broken blood vessels which forced him to miss the Gold Cup in March, and his price of 7-2 is the most miserable of any of the market leaders.
The Fellow, too, is hard to fancy at 7-2. He was well-beaten last year, and despite his two previous King George victories may now prefer a stiffer test of stamina than this easy three miles. Travado, by contrast, has yet to prove that he stays today's trip, and so cannot be supported, even at 8-1. Algan, the second challenger from Francois Doumen's yard, merits respect if only because of his trainer's outstanding record in the race. While he might find a place, though, the experience he will gain for future cross-Channel raids may be uppermost in Doumen's mind.
And now, suddenly, we are considering top-class horses at an also-ran's odds. Young Hustler, winner of the 1993 Sun Alliance Chase and second favourite for this race last year, is a 16-1 chance, while Monsieur Le Cure, the most recent Sun Alliance winner, stands at 11-1.
Young Hustler, perhaps, is a few pounds adrift of Bradbury Star and Barton Bank - his 20-length fourth here 12 months ago proved as much - but Monsieur Le Cure (2.20) seems wildly overpriced. An authoritative winner at Cheltenham and then again at Liverpool, he appears to have been dismissed after failing on his two outings to date this season. Yet Norman Williamson's mount did not start to find his best form last term until Boxing Day, narrowly losing out in one of Kempton's novice chases, and his running-on fourth, over an inadequate trip, behind Dublin Flyer earlier this month seemed to herald a return to his best. Each-way, there can be no better bet this Christmas.
Pashto will probably start favourite for the card's second Grade One event, the Feltham Novice Chase, but Call Home (1.15) may be a better proposition if only because he has impressive winning form at Kempton. High Low (12.45), a former Lincoln winner, should continue unbeaten over hurdles in the opener, while Kadastrof (1.45) and High Baron (2.50) also hold fair chances.
Today's main event in the north, the Rowland Meyrick Handicap Chase at Wetherby, seems likely to be reduced to a contest between Jodami, the 1993 Gold Cup winner, Cogent, last year's Hennessy Gold Cup winner, and One Man, who took this year's Hennessy i
n the style of a future champion. The 23lb which Jodami must concede to One Man will surely prove decisive.
The feature at Wincanton, the Mid-Season Chase, has also cut up to a handful of runners, with Martha's Son the best bet against Lusty Light, who seemed ready for a break when refusing at Chepstow recently. The remaining meetings provide a frightening number of possibilities, with only some wise words from 50 years ago for comfort. National Velvet again: Velvet's mother to her husband. "I'm surprised to hear you've got any faith in humanity, Mr Brown. Sometimes I'd sooner put my faith in a horse."