In a survey before Christmas, trainers came up with some instructive answers when asked what they most hoped to find in their stockings yesterday morning. Marcus Tregoning admitted that he could not imagine anything filling his stocking more pleasingly than Beyoncé. Alan King said that his was very capacious, and could comfortably accommodate Kauto Star. And Paul Nicholls? All he wanted for Christmas was "a stress-free Boxing Day". Of the three, it has to be said that Tregoning was much the least ambitious.
Nicholls expects no sympathy as he saddles the hot favourite for the Stan James King George VI Chase - the hottest in many years. But since the start of the season Kauto Star has vaulted so swiftly into the firmament that he suddenly seems to have more to lose at Kempton today than he can possibly gain. Everyone else can go there in hope, but Nicholls travels in expectation.
Anyone willing to sample his anxiety need only take the very short odds about Kauto Star. Clearly, he is much the most likely winner. He has achieved giddy ratings over three different distances this season, and while it is possible to perforate the form, there is no mistaking his authentic class.
The one caveat remains that all three of those runs were on very soft ground. But he races so lavishly on the bridle that it is hard to imagine Kauto Star ever being outpaced, having cruised past the energetic Voy Por Ustedes over two miles at Sandown last time. Perhaps his jumping technique, which is not especially elegant, may be a little more vulnerable on this better ground, but he will be helped by a fairly small field and one of the greatest steeplechase riders in history.
In the longer term, of course, the Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup will raise different questions, demanding the stamina for a stiffer test, and the speed for spring ground. Above all you would have to wonder whether he could possibly reach a new peak, after consecutive top-class performances in deep going in the first half of the season.
That is something to bear in mind should any of the other six-year-olds in the race improve enough to rattle him today. Monet's Garden could not quite cope with Voy Por Ustedes over two miles at Cheltenham last spring - giving him 5lb - but that may be a little deceptive. Voy Por Ustedes struggled against Kauto Star at Sandown in much softer ground, on his first start of the season, and of course Monet's Garden himself may prove much better over this distance. The grey has such quality, buoyancy and spirit that it is perfectly possible to envisage him giving the favourite a fright.
Racing Demon meanwhile is a classic "fit" for this particular race, having confirmed his relish for a sharp, flat, right-handed track when a decisive winner of the Peterborough Chase last time out. In fact, his career record in completed starts on right-handed tracks reads 121311111, and his trainer is notably enthusiastic about his preparation. Moreover, she considers him capable of considerable improvement at this distance.
The other young horse in the race, Exotic Dancer, has made unexpectedly rapid progress this autumn, bolting up in two valuable handicaps at Cheltenham. But even if he can sustain his improvement round this very different track, and over this longer distance, a place would represent another career best.
The others look exposed, but while Kauto Star is very hard to oppose, he is not a "stress-free" price. Those insisting on a bet should perhaps take 9-2 against Monet's Garden (2.20) instead, because he just might put pressure on Kauto Star's jumping.
Straw Bear is odds-on for the Christmas Hurdle after impressing on his return at Newcastle - albeit in very soft ground - and success would make him eligible for a £1m bonus in the Smurfit Champion Hurdle.
He has found another fairly thin field, but Afsoun is still on the march and it is reasonable to expect a bolder show this time from Desert Quest (1.45), who was tailed-off at Newcastle. The form of his own reappearance was comparable with that of Straw Bear and, back on better ground, he could be the value.
The day's other Grade One race matches the experience of Knowhere and Yes Sir against the promise of several unexposed rivals. Any horse that wins the Feltham Novices' Chase with authority will be an automatic candidate for the King George next year. Whatever wins must produce a career best, but Aztec Warrior (1.10) looks the best value. His jumping is so bold that blunders in two of his three chases have knocked him out of contention, but in between he showed a relish for a sharp, right-handed track.
The best opportunity in the televised races is Yaboya (3.0) in the novices' handicap chase. He looks fairly treated despite being raised 5lb for falling at Cheltenham, as he looked certain to show improved form. But the bet of the day is at Market Rasen, where VICTORY GUNNER (nap 1.40) can repeat last year's win in the Clugston Lincolnshire National off a 10lb lower mark, having pledged a revival at Chepstow last time.Reuse content