No Desert Orchid, no Remittance Man, no Carvill's Hill. But lest we doubt the quality of this year's field, let us remember that The Fellow won this event last year while Desert Orchid was sprawled on the Kempton turf, and for the last two seasons has come within a short-head of winning steeplechasing's greatest prize, the Gold Cup at Cheltenham. The Fellow is jump racing's champion elect, and that will provide a focus plenty big enough when the roads to Kempton start filling with punters desperate to escape their living rooms.
That there will be something missing is beyond dispute. How many of those who were converted to racing's cause by Desert Orchid's odyssey have stuck with the game in these less charismatic times? Arrive early, Kempton keeps telling us. In the Desert Orchid years, the edict was: set off now. And bring a tent.
The beauty of the King George is that it represents an unrivalled climax to the first half of the jumps season and is different in detail to the Gold Cup, and so places a distinctive set of demands on its contestants. If Cheltenham represents a whole continent of undulating grassland, Kempton is a tightly bordered principality in which speed and sharpness are as highly valued as galloping power. And then there are those three quick fences in the home straight which seem to have been designed to release the post-brandy roar of Boxing Day encounters.
On the form book, The Fellow, with his Dickensian name, should win it again and disappoint the notoriously parochial British racing public, not to mention the punters, for whom France's foremost chaser is anything but a betting proposition. Those looking for alternative investments will need to tap the optimism of Josh Gifford's retained jockey, Declan Murphy, who says: 'If I was betting on the race I wouldn't make The Fellow 5-4 or even money and wouldn't have Bradbury Star at 5-1 and Deep Sensation on 8-1. They'd be a damn sight closer than that.'
In theory The Fellow is the senior citizen, the holder of office, in this field and horses like Gifford's pair are in the business of coups d'etat. But then look at their ages: The Fellow is from the same generation (seven-year-olds) as Bradbury Star, Deep Sensation and Tipping Tim and is fully two years younger than Kings Fountain and Pat's Jester, the erratic northern challenger who has been prepared in the suitably sacred surroundings of Holy Island. It still stretches credulity to believe that The Fellow was just six when he won last year's King George, and more generally, that the French send horses steeplechasing soon after their fourth birthday.
Murphy and his British-based colleagues have drawn hope from the fact that The Fellow was beaten in the Hennessy Gold Cup. 'I don't think it was a particularly great Hennessy, and if he is as good as his price suggests he should have been a lot closer (to Sibton Abbey) than he was that day,' Murphy says. Against that, The Fellow recorded what some clock-watchers regard as his best ever speed figure at Newbury, and without wishing to suggest that he was a non-participant there, the main purpose of running him was to prepare him for Kempton and Boxing Day.
Hardly anyone in this country can tell you very much about French jump racing, which is odd because given the fantastic prize-money on offer at tracks like Auteuil, it is a wonder more British horses and trainers have not set sail for Paris on regular missions. The Fellow's 12 victories - 11 of them at Auteuil, and the other at Kempton - have secured for his connections win and place money of pounds 624,000.
It took Desert Orchid three times as many wins to reach a similar mark, and when you learn that The Fellow's two successes in France this season netted pounds 30,832 and pounds 25,800 respectively then you wonder how we have the brass neck to be sniffy about half-breds like The Fellow capturing our top races. On the figures, at least, French jumping is a paradise not-yet-found to British trainers scraping round for a couple of thousand pounds at Ludlow or Bangor.
The question you have to ask about all The Fellow's adversaries on Saturday is: are they good enough? Bradbury Star could be, so could Deep Sensation. Kings Fountain you might fancy if he did not suffer temporary blindness in front of at least one fence in a race.
Docklands Express would be many people's favourite chaser after running in everything bar the London marathon last season, but the evidence of his return to action at Doncaster a fortnight ago was not encouraging enough to believe he can improve on his second place here last year. The Illywhacker and Tipping Tim look a shade outclassed, but Pat's Jester would have a major chance on his best form of a season ago. Remember that this is a horse who beat Katabatic in a Grade One Chase at Haydock less than 12 months back, though it is hard to say for sure that he will run to that peak on Saturday.
And a peak is where the winner will have to be. If you are scouting through the eight names for an alternative to The Fellow then Bradbury Star might be the safest stopping point. Recall him beating Jodami and Run For Free at Aintree last season - or finishing sixth in the 1991 Champion Hurdle - and you can rest assured that Bradbury Star has the potential to make the transition to premier league success, and as Murphy says: 'He's not a horse who'd want a stiff three miles, but he's a real Kempton three-mile horse who's best when something is carrying him through a race.'
Desert Orchid he may not be, but nor will he stand aside for The Fellow's investiture.
----------------------------------------------------------------- KING GEORGE VI CHASE - 30-YEAR RECORD ----------------------------------------------------------------- Year Winner, Age & Weight Trainer Jockey Ran SP 1962 Abandoned 1963 Mill House 6 12 0 F Walwyn G W Robinson 3 2-7 1964 Frenchman's Cove 9 11 7 H T Jones S Mellor 2 4-11 1965 Arkle 8 12 0 T Dreaper (Irl) P Taaffe 4 1-7 1966 Dormant 9 11 0 J Wells-Kendrew J King 7 10-1 1967 Abandoned 1968 Abandoned 1969 Titus Oats 7 11 10 G Richards S Mellor 5 100-30 1970 Abandoned 1971 The Dikler 8 11 7 F Walwyn B Brogan 10 11-2 1972 Pendil 7 12 0 F Winter R Pitman 6 4-5 1973 Pendil 8 12 0 F Winter R Pitman 4 30-100 1974 Captain Christy 7 12 0 P Taaffe (Irl) R Coonan 6 5-1 1975 Captain Christy 8 12 0 P Taaffe (Irl) G Newman 7 11-10 1976 Royal Marshall II 9 11 7 T Forster G Thorner 10 16-1 1977 Bachelor's Hall 7 11 7 P Cundell M O'Halloran 9 9-2 1978 Gay Spartan 7 11 10 A Dickinson T Carmody 16 3-1 1979 Silver Buck 7 11 10 M Dickinson T Carmody 11 3-1 1980 Silver Buck 8 11 10 M Dickinson T Carmody 8 9-4 1981 Abandoned 1982 Wayward Lad 7 11 10 M Dickinson J Francome 6 7-2 1983 Wayward Lad 8 11 10 M Dickinson R Earnshaw 5 11-8 1984 Burrough Hill Lad 8 11 10 Mrs J Pitman J Francome 6 1-2 1985 Wayward Lad 10 11 10 Mrs M Dickinson G Bradley 5 12-1 1986 Desert Orchid 7 11 10 D Elsworth S Sherwood 9 16-1 1987 Nupsala 8 11 10 F Doumen (Fr) A Pommier 9 25-1 1988 Desert Orchid 9 11 10 D Elsworth S Sherwood 5 1-2 1989 Desert Orchid 10 11 10 D Elsworth R Dunwoody 6 4-6 1990 Desert Orchid 11 11 10 D Elsworth R Dunwoody 9 9-4 1991 The Fellow 6 11 10 F Doumen (Fr) A Kondrat 8 10-1 -----------------------------------------------------------------
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