Al Ferof looks in the pink to make another grey Christmas for John Hales

Al Ferof the main threat to Silviniaco Conti in the King George

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The Independent Online

Business achievement, however high, does not guarantee success in racehorse ownership, but one man who appears to have the Midas touch is John Hales.

Thanks to good judgement and a fair slice of good fortune, the soft toy manufacturer, made rich selling Teletubbies (Toy of the Year 1997) by Santa’s sackful, has managed to win a Grand National and two Champion Chases, not to mention two King George VI Chases with the brilliant One Man.

Hales has also done quite nicely in the showjumping arena, being the owner of the world famous stallion and five-time British Horse of the Year Arko III.

Still ambitious at 75, Hales wants more. Al Ferof, a striking grey (like One Man and Neptune Collonges, his 2012 National winner) lines up for today’s King George as the main threat to Silviniaco Conti and Champagne Fever and would be feared even more if his stamina for three miles could be taken as read.

Though by the same sire, Dom Alco, as Neptune Collonges and thorough stayer Silviniaco Conti, Al Ferof has been campaigned mostly over shorter distances throughout his career and those stamina doubts did seem justified when he finished a well-beaten third in last year’s King George.

But Al Ferof was not in the best of health for much of last season, unlike on his return at Ascot five weeks ago, when he brushed aside decent opposition.

Hales said after that victory: “We couldn’t understand why he went downhill after winning this same race last year. He was third in the King George, but that wasn’t the real Al Ferof.

“Then we discovered he had grade-four ulcers and horses can’t cope with that. Now you can see the difference – that was impressive.”

Al Ferof turns 10 next week and, realistically, this is perhaps his last chance to produce absolute top-class form over this distance. But with less testing ground expected to be in his favour at Kempton, hopes are high and Hales still has not given up on the Cheltenham Gold Cup either.

Cue Card, who looked  certain to win last year’s King George jumping the second last before suddenly and dramatically running out of petrol, is another who should be suited by the less taxing conditions. So, too, second-season chaser Champagne Fever, although the Irish challenger also needs to step up a notch in form to disturb the old guard.

I suspect the first three from last year may fill the first three places again today – but this time in a different order with Al Ferof (3.10 Kempton), rather than Silviniaco Conti, providing trainer Paul Nicholls with his ninth King George triumph.

A record five of those wins were down to Kauto Star and it will be appropriate if Nicholls wins the novice chase named in his honour (formerly the Feltham Chase) on the day a bronze statue of the old champion is unveiled in the parade ring.

This is a race often won by future stars and Nicholls’ Saphir Du Rheu (2.00 Kempton), a smart hurdler expected to fare better still over fences, seems to fit the bill, although the likes of Carraig Mor and Coneygree will provide stiff opposition.

Willie Mullins will be able to live with an honourable defeat for Champagne Fever in the big one, but will be mortified if Faugheen is beaten in the Christmas Hurdle. Faugheen (2.35 Kempton) has not achieved much more on paper than Nicholls’ Irving, but he has won all seven starts without being tested.

If there is an Irish superstar in training to compare with the triple Champion Hurdle winner Istabraq, it is surely Faugheen. Today should be no more than a warm-up for his meeting with Britain’s finest, The New One, at Cheltenham in March.

Mullins’ thrilling novice chaser Vautour, already Irish banker material for the  Festival, is the headline act on the opening day of Leopardstown’s four-day Christmas meeting and anything other than an elegant victory stroll is pretty much unthinkable to his legion of fans.

The King George VI Chase at Kempton is live on Channel 4 today.

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