The betting might imply that One Man is effectively home and dry in the King George VI Chase this afternoon, but "dry" is very much the operative word. The easy winner in each of the last two seasons he may be, but if the rain which fell on Kempton in the days before Christmas has got in to the ground, One Man may stop very suddenly just when he should be accelerating. For a huge crowd still carrying a stone or so overweight in turkey and trimmings, this would do nothing to aid the digestion.
So pronounced are One Man's stamina limitations that you could pinpoint to within a stride or two the moment when he started to flag 12 months ago. At the time, he was so far ahead - Mr Mulligan, the subsequent Gold Cup winner, had just fallen when a clear second - that it did not matter, and the bare form offers no reason why either Rough Quest (second) or Barton Bank (third) should turn the tables today. Crucially, though, that race was on ground described officially as good to firm, and to judge by the winning time that day, very much on the firm side of that. On good to soft, or softer, the result could be very different, and as the last two Gold Cups have demonstrated, when One Man stops, he stops for good.
Whether Rough Quest - or See More Business, who also needs soft ground - will even line up will not be decided finally until this morning, which makes this a difficult race to analyse in detail. It seems likely, though, that the ground will have too much give for Senor El Betrutti, an impressive and improving winner twice already this season, while Yorkshire Gale and Djeddah are out of their depth, and Challenger Du Luc has developed galloping seconditis.
It is four years since Barton Bank won this race, and three since he fell at the last with victory assured, but odds of 5-1 about a horse with just one victory in nine outings over the last two seasons are far too short. If One Man is poor value at 11-8 - and he is - this leaves Rough Quest (next best, 2.20) as an outstanding bet at around 9-1 if he lines up, and Suny Bay, the Hennessy winner, as the one to be on if he does not.
The best bet of all on the holiday card is SECRET SPRING (nap 1.45), who ran Sanmartino very close in the novice hurdle over course and distance a year ago and was given a very gentle seasonal re-introduction at Cheltenham last month. He was still travelling sweetly with two flights to jump, something which would not normally escape the attention of the odds-compilers, so it is a welcome surprise to find 5-1 available about him this morning.
Some very desperate people will be watching the novice hurdle which opens the card. They are the ones who backed Zaralaska down to low double figures for the Champion Hurdle before his unfortunate defeat - at odds of 1-5 - by Wahiba Sands recently, and nothing but victory will do today if he is to stand any chance at Cheltenham in March. Some other useful Flat performers are in opposition today, but both Royal Gait and Alderbrook were beaten in novice hurdles before going on to win as novices at the Festival, and Zaralaska (12.40) deserves another chance.
The Feltham Novices' Chase, the main supporting race on the card, is not really one on which to risk money, since at least four of the runners have fair claims, although Fiddling The Facts is probably the most promising of all, and should at least confirm the form of her recent defeat of Ottowa, even on 7lb worse terms.
Elsewhere on one of racing's busiest days of the year, the Rowland Meyrick Handicap Chase at Wetherby has attracted an excellent field, including Sparky Gayle, who disappointed when favourite for the Murphy's Gold Cup, and another of last season's most promising novices, Colonel In Chief (2.25). The latter should probably have beaten Strath Royal over course and distance earlier this month, and is unlikely to return empty handed today. Wincanton, too, has much to offer refugees from the leftovers, with Stately Home, Northern Starlight (1.55) and Around the Gale among the runners for the Mid Season Chase, not to mention a 14-runner field for the Gold Card Hurdle Qualifier which offers optimists and pin-stickers a chance to recoup the Christmas expenses in one inspired hit.