Gourmets prepare for Merry feast

KING GEORGE VI CHASE: Kempton's loss is Sandown's gain as racing is finally allowed to celebrate the joys of Boxing Day
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The Independent Online
GREG WOOD

Shortly before Christmas, Philip Hide, due to partner Brief Gale in the King George VI Chase on Boxing Day, was asked by the Racing Post how he rated the mare's chance. His response was that she was approaching her best form, but that the race might come a little soon. What a shame, he said, that the King George wasn't two weeks later.

Young Philip clearly has influence in some very high places. Eleven days after frost forced the abandonment of the original King George card at Kempton, the most important race of the first half of the jumps season will finally take place at Sandown this afternoon. The booze-fuelled festive rowdiness which characterises the Boxing Day meeting may be missing, but few serious racegoers will notice. Instead, spectators can enjoy, at no extra cost, an eight-race card of a quality that will be surpassed only at the Festival in March.

The King George too has benefited from the delay, for while Dublin Flyer is now an absentee, Master Oats, the Gold Cup winner, is now able to take his place. After his dismal performance in the Rehearsal Chase at Chepstow last month, however, the horse who won by 15 lengths pulling up at Cheltenham 10 months ago is only the third-favourite today at 9-2, behind One Man at 5-2 and Barton Bank at 100-30.

If Master Oats wins at that sort of price - and with Charlie Swan, no less, in his saddle - little short of professional counselling will ease the distress of those who failed to back him. After all, they say you should always forgive a horse one bad run, in particular a proven champion like Master Oats.

Yet the clear conclusion of his run at Chepstow was that while he may lack nothing in desire or talent, the link between his engine and the gears is unusually fragile. Master Oats is prone to breaking blood vessels in his lungs, a problem which, even if it does not occur in every race, can make a horse understandably reluctant to fully extend himself. Until he has run up to his best once more, Master Oats cannot be backed with confidence at any price.

A similar comment applies to Barton Bank, whose competent success on his only outing this season must not obscure the memory of his complete loss of form and confidence last term. He fell at Wetherby, Kempton (when clear at the last in the King George) and Cheltenham, and Sandown's obstacles are as demanding as any.

There is no value in Barton Bank's price, nor in the short odds offered about One Man, whose overall form is simply that of a highly promising young chaser, rather than a worthy favourite in an exceptional field. Francois Doumen's candidates demand respect, but Val D'Alene wants it softer while Algan surely cannot be as lucky again as he was 12 months ago.

Brief Gale may attract support, not least in the light of Hide's comment, at around 16-1, but the bookmakers have already taken evasive action - the Sun Alliance Chase winner was a 25-1 chance on Boxing Day morning. The rest of the outsiders are very hard to fancy, which leaves one very clear choice for punters.

MERRY GALE (nap 2.30) was declared a certain runner only on Wednesday, when problems with the cost and practicality of transport had been overcome, but when it comes to the return trip to Ireland, both horse and connections should be able to travel first class. His success in the Martell Cup at Aintree in April alone gives him every chance today, while at just eight years of age he has yet to reach his peak. Tough, versatile and sure-footed at his fences, Merry Gale is an excellent bet at around 11-2.

Graham Bradley, Merry Gale's jockey, has every chance of enjoying one of the best days of his long career, since he partners the improving Suny Bay (next best 3.30) in the Mildmay/Cazalet Chase which would be the card's feature under normal circumstances. Today's are anything but, though, and almost every contest offers great quality, considerable promise or, generally, both.

Absalom's Lady (11.55) can get the afternoon off to a good start - or, more precisely, bring the morning to a profitable close - on her way to another run in the Champion Hurdle, while a possible opponent at Cheltenham, River North, makes his debut over timber in the Tolworth Hurdle. A Group One winner on the Flat, River North comes to hurdling with just as much potential as Alderbrook, last year's champion.

Right Win, another good performer on the level, is among his opponents, while As Des Carres, one of the best chasers in France before his recent move to Josh Gifford, makes the race still harder to assess. It is best watched for future reference, so too the juvenile hurdle in which Our Kris, the Triumph Hurdle favourite, takes on some very interesting debutants.

Save the cash for Major Summit (1.25) and Storm Alert (12.55), while Easy Buck (2.00) is worth supporting to beat the ageing Miinnehoma, the 1994 Grand National winner, in Haydock's Newton Chase.

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