Florida Pearl means business at Kempton

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The Independent Online

It takes an unusual amount of dedication to fight your way to Kempton Park on Boxing Day, what with the traffic, the hangover, and the gaping post-Christmas hole in your bank account. It may not feel like quite such a struggle this time around, however, for the 50th running of the King George VI Chase next Tuesday promises to be among the best and most competitive in the race's distinguished history.

It takes an unusual amount of dedication to fight your way to Kempton Park on Boxing Day, what with the traffic, the hangover, and the gaping post-Christmas hole in your bank account. It may not feel like quite such a struggle this time around, however, for the 50th running of the King George VI Chase next Tuesday promises to be among the best and most competitive in the race's distinguished history.

There are many illustrious names on the trophy already, including Arkle, Desert Orchid and Burrough Hill Lad, but the opposition to such champions has often been thin on the ground. That seems unlikely next week, when See More Business, twice the winner of the race already and a short-priced favourite for a third success, is expected to face top-class opponents from France and Ireland, as well the horses who arguably put up the finest individual performances of last season, Beau and Legal Right.

The Tote trimmed See More Business to 6-5 from 5-4 yesterday, but it is difficult to understand why. Thirteen horses remain in the £150,000 contest after yesterday's declaration stage - although Marlborough is more likely to run at Wetherby - and at least half a dozen have shown a level of form which could be good enough to win. That includes Edredon Bleu, the reigning two-mile champion, who is thought by many to be unlikely to stay the three-mile trip next week - although the same people, it should be recalled, said much the same about Desert Orchid, before he won his first King George at the outrageous odds of 16-1. First Gold, representing Francois Doumen, and Florida Pearl, who is still, incredibly, just eight years old, are others with every chance on the book.

For all that he won the Royal & SunAlliance (Novices') Chase in 1998, Florida Pearl tends to be thought of by British punters as Ireland's nearly-horse, who never quite does over here what he does over there. Placed in the last two Gold Cups, Willie Mullins's chaser should find Kempton's flat three miles a little more to his liking than the stiff three miles and two at Cheltenham, yet he is still available at 11-2 for the King George with British bookies.

"I suppose that's a fair reflection given his two runs this year," Mullins said yesterday, "although I was delighted with his last run, and I think he's come on a fair bit for it."

That latest outing was a narrow defeat by Native Upmanship in the Grade One John Durkan Memorial Chase, and a significant improvement on a lacklustre display behind Looks Like Trouble on his seasonal debut at Down Royal.

"He's in great order now," Mullins said. "He schooled and worked this morning and everything is going well. He's won two Grade Ones over here [the last two runnings of the Hennessy Gold Cup at Leopardstown] which is more than a lot of the rest of them have won, and I just hope there'll be something there to make the running."

Remaining entries for the King George include Direct Route and Bellator, but both are also engaged in the Castleford Chase at Wetherby the same afternoon. Howard Johnson, Direct Route's trainer, has said that his chaser will run at Kempton only if the ground is genuinely good, which, after one of the wettest autumns since records began, seems a little unlikely. Tuitchev, the winner of last season's Arkle Trophy, is another top two-miler with an entry in the Wetherby race.

A strong supporting card to the King George at Kempton includes the Feltham Novice Chase, a Grade One event, for which there were 12 entries yesterday. Shotgun Willy, the ante-post favourite for the Royal & SunAlliance Chase, is among them, along with Sackville, reckoned by many to be the best novice in Ireland, and Bacchanal, the winner of last season's Stayers' Hurdle at the Festival. "He's in fine form, he's well on schedule and the intention is to run," Paul Nicholls, Shotgun Willy's trainer, said yesterday. "The going how it is would be perfect but he's won on all sorts of ground, he's won on good and he's won on heavy. Bacchanal and Sackville are in it, and he's beaten some of the others, but if they all turn up it will be some novice chase."

The trainer Mark Pitman yesterday reported Ashley Park in good form for his return to action in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton a week tomorrow. The six-year-old has been restricted to just two runs over hurdles, finishing fourth behind Istabraq in the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham in March on the second occasion. And Pitman will also be running Hitman, fourth in the Bula Hurdle at Cheltenham last time, at Kempton over Christmas.

Pitman said: "Ashley Park's going great guns at the moment. Timmy Murphy schooled him on Friday - the first time he's jumped a hurdle since the Champion Hurdle - and he was electric. He only went over three hurdles but he was spectacular."

Hitman is set to run in the jobs.co.uk Novices' Hurdle on Boxing Day. Pitman said: "The horse is in great shape." Ashley Park and Hitman are 8-1 and 16-1 respectively with Ladbrokes for the Champion Hurdle.

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