The three kings seem a trifle ahead of themselves this year. So while gold, frankincense or myrrh would all be very nice, nothing would go down quite as well as some guaranteed astrological insight into the likely fortunes of Kicking King and Kingscliff in the King George VI Chase at Sandown this afternoon.
Anyone contemplating a bet must decide whether or not to share the collective leap of faith being made with the Irish champion. Kicking King first laid down the frontiers of a new realm in this race last year, and then fortified them with imperious wins at Cheltenham and Punchestown.
Unfortunately the walls have proved highly porous in both starts this season, though Tom Taaffe has been quick to fill the gaps with substantial excuses.
Given the quiet form of his stable at the time, the trainer was more than satisfied with Kicking King's resumption at Punchestown. The horse then finished sore after twisting a shoe at Haydock, having initially made his ground with menacing comfort. Eased by Barry Geraghty, he was beaten over 10 lengths behind Kingscliff, who again leads the home defence today.
KINGSCLIFF (2.15) seems to have been around for an eternity but has still had only nine starts under Rules, and is entitled to be reaching physical maturity now. Admittedly he got so close to Kicking King at Kempton last Christmas only because the winner had tried to gallop straight through the final fence, but he had been off the track for nearly a year and was then rushed off his feet early on.
In theory, this stiffer track should suit him much better, albeit people forget how very quickly things happen at Sandown, too. If he can stay in contention over the fences in the back straight, the pride of the Portman Hunt should be very hard to repel on the climb to the line.
And that is the key to the whole race. At his best, Kicking King overwhelms his rivals from a long way out. Nothing was ever going to challenge him at Kempton or Cheltenham last season. At slightly better odds, sheer class would make him the only possible selection. As it is, however, the bookmakers have made some fairly generous assumptions.
Ollie Magern - much fitter than Kingscliff when beating him at Wetherby in October - might ensure a more searching test than he managed at Haydock, and that should see off Impek, who has thrived for positive tactics of late, but may not last home round here. While the trainers of L'Ami and Irish Hussar demand respect, much the best each-way value rests with Royal Auclair.
He played an honourable supporting role in the Grand National (second) and Gold Cup (fourth) last season, and looked better than ever when winning a very competitive handicap at Cheltenham last time.
He had clearly progressed for his reappearance at Haydock, though Kingscliff can accept the compliment either way. Unlike Kingscliff, however, Royal Auclair has already shown himself very much at home round Sandown and the likelihood of a stronger pace than at Haydock should suit him equally well. Albeit the claiming rider who rode him at Cheltenham has a good future, it can do him no harm to have Ruby Walsh in the saddle today and they can definitely make the frame.
However Kicking King fares the Irish will be optimistic of consolidating the immense strength of their hurdling division when Feathard Lady (next best, 1.40) exports her unbeaten record earlier on the card.
From the same stable as Brave Inca, she has looked a very potent talent - albeit so far in softer ground - and her mares' allowance can accelerate her progress past some weary yardsticks, among which Self Defense is likely to run one of his better races back over this course. It certainly looks instructive that Walsh has persuaded Paul Nicholls to excuse him from Natal so that he can ride Feathard Lady.
Small fields for the novice chases should not discourage the belief that they will identify leading British candidates for Cheltenham. Stamina provides the chief question mark against Crozan (2.50) after his dashing British debut at Cheltenham, while Racing Demon (1.05) has already won over these fences - and in a time that stood comparison with that recorded by Kauto Star himself in the Tingle Creek Chase on the same day. He cannot afford any errors, however, as Hoo La Baloo jumped like an old hand there and is back to keep the pressure on.
The most exciting novice in action today, however, is probably Justified, who has been electric in both chases to date and tops the bill on the opening day of the big Christmas meeting at Leopardstown.
Nap: Eastborough (Wolverhampton 3.50)
NB: Feathard Lady
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