Racing: Flawless Best Mate has the power to outshine Pearl

After the excesses of the festive day itself, it may take real dedication to struggle to Kempton Park this morning, what with the traffic, the hangover and the post-Christmas void in the bank account. But it will be worth it; the 52nd running of the King George VI Chase promises the perfect antidote to lethargy. There are still tickets available in all sections of the Sunbury track, at prices between £10 and £30, but get there early is the watchword. Should the Kempton authorities go ahead with their controversial plan to do away with jump racing in favour of floodlit all-weather sport, the Boxing Day queues to the car parks will pass without regret.

After the excesses of the festive day itself, it may take real dedication to struggle to Kempton Park this morning, what with the traffic, the hangover and the post-Christmas void in the bank account. But it will be worth it; the 52nd running of the King George VI Chase promises the perfect antidote to lethargy. There are still tickets available in all sections of the Sunbury track, at prices between £10 and £30, but get there early is the watchword. Should the Kempton authorities go ahead with their controversial plan to do away with jump racing in favour of floodlit all-weather sport, the Boxing Day queues to the car parks will pass without regret.

Today's centrepiece, though, would be a grave loss to the racing programme. Rather hurriedly inaugurated in 1937 to honour the unexpected new monarch after the abdication of Edward VIII, it is generally regarded as the calendar's second most important test for staying chasers. But the three-mile contest identifies the best performer of the season more often than the race perceived as the championship, the Cheltenham Gold Cup, which is run over an idiosyncratic course and demands stamina far in excess of speed. It is possible for a high-class plodder to win at Cheltenham, but not at Kempton. If the race is moved – please God not to Sandown; Ascot must be the best alternative – its character and influence will disappear.

But if today's renewal is the last in its present form, it may well prove an appropriate vale. The seven best staying chasers of the last century who raced during the King George's existence – Arkle, Desert Orchid several times, Mill House, Captain Christy, Burrough Hill Lad, Pendil and One Man – put up true tours de force round the old gravel pits – and Arkle added another in defeat, when he bowed out of racing 46 years ago today by giving 21lb and a broken foot to Dormant and yielding by only a length.

One of today's gifts to the faithful in the stands may come in the form of pure gold, should Best Mate join the the sport's pantheon. This stunningly handsome seven-year-old has carried a heavy burden of expectation since his novice hurdling days, one he has borne almost without blemish. He is the reigning Cheltenham king but he has still to take the overall crown from Florida Pearl, who beat him three-quarters of a length in this race 12 months ago on the last occasion they met. But Best Mate has all the talents: he stays, he travels, he quickens, he jumps quite beautifully and although Florida Pearl, winner of seven Grade One chases to his younger rival's two, is superior in experience and (according to the official handicappers at the end of last season) ability. Today should be the day the new order is definitively established.

Best Mate so nearly defied his youth to take the prize last year, when ridden for the first time by Tony McCoy. Fate has given the perennial champion, who goes into today just one winner away from the fastest-ever double century, another chance; last year Henrietta Knight's stable jockey, Jim Culloty, was ruled out by injury, this time by a riding ban.

The superstitious Knight will not be present to witness her charge's bid for glory, having opted to travel to Wetherby to supervise the other West Lockinge star, Edredon Bleu, in the Castleford Chase, but a willing deputy at the Thamesside course will be Jim Lewis, who owns both horses. Lewis is regarded as an unlucky influence in the stable yard near Wantage and so is banned from visiting Best Mate at home and has opted for Sunbury rather than the trip to Maine Road to watch his equally beloved Aston Villa.

The eight in opposition to Best Mate and Florida Pearl are by no means negligible, winners of 74 races between them. Bacchanal, Mick Fitzgerald's pick of two candidates from red-hot Seven Barrows, has a record that includes one of the card's supporting Grade Ones, the Feltham Chase, and a Stayers' Hurdle and the eight-year-old was third in the King George last year. French raiders have a formidable record, but Douze Douze will have to jump better than he did when chasing home Best Mate at Huntingdon last month to complete what will be a fast and furious affair without mishap. Florida Pearl's compatriot and great rival Native Upmanship is patently better at shorter but perversely the greatest threat to the big two may come from the two-mile champion Flagship Uberalles. The eight-year-old, the most prolific winner in the field, is untested over today's trip but has bags of class.

The warm up-act for the main event is the Christmas Hurdle, in which the reigning champion over the smaller obstacles, Hors La Loi III, faces six pretenders. James Fanshawe's charge was a sub-standard winner and took a horrible fall on his comeback and if either the underrated Intersky Falcon (1.45) or Davenport Milenium cannot beat him they have no place as high as they are in Champion Hurdle betting.

The only trainer with a chance of the £100,000 offered by Kempton to anyone (trainer owner or jockey) who can win all three of the card's Grade One races is Willie Mullins, responsible for not only Florida Pearl, Davenport Milenium but, in the Feltham Chase, One Night Out. The Irishman's tilt at the Christmas bonus may evaporate at the first time of asking, for the former élite hurdlers Le Sauvignon (1.10) and Jair Du Cochet look well above-average staying novice chasers. Another of that ilk, Le Coudray, attempts to extend his winning run over fences to three in Ireland's feature of the day, the Denny Gold Medal Novices' Chase at Leopardstown.

There are eight other meetings in Britain to rival Kempton as a post-festivity refresher. The fifth high-class contest of the day is the Castleford Chase at Wetherby, in which Geos (2.45) can take advantage of his weight advantage all round.

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