For Christmas glitz and glamour look to Kempton on Boxing Day. For the tough, get going to Chepstow two days later. On Monday, when Kauto Star and Co are safely tucked up back in their stables, the marathon slog that is the Coral Welsh National is the centrepiece and 44 years of hurt could come to an end as Tim Vaughan aims to become the first Welsh trainer since 1965 to keep the principality's most valuable race at home.
Vaughan, based near Cowbridge, is hoping that he and his charge Flintoff can emulate Denzil Jenkins and Norther. And victory would be a matter of both national and personal pride for the upwardly mobile handler, who is in only his second full season with a licence.
"I think we've showed people we can train winner," he said yesterday. "Now we want to show we can train big winners, take the operation up to the next level. As a Welshman, to do that in my country's biggest race would be just perfect."
The eight-year-old Flintoff, jointly owned by his cricketing namesake, has not run since the spring but bowled 'em over on the gallops yesterday morning. "He came up our hill three times," Vaughan said, "he looks great in his coat and seems a happy horse in himself. We had thought about giving him a preliminary run over hurdles to blow the cobwebs away, but in the end decided not to risk it.
"This prize has been the plan all along – it's his King George and Gold Cup rolled into one – and it would have been silly if he'd hurt himself. He runs well fresh, we've been keeping him sweet with a bit of hunting and we like to think we can get one fit enough to do himself justice first time up. He tends to pull out in the morning a bit stiff but soon warms to any task we set him."
Flintoff, a Flat-bred dark chestnut with rather spooky white-ringed eyes, joined Vaughan from Venetia Williams during the summer, the transfer arranged by the horse's principal owner Paul Beck. "He's fitted in well," said Vaughan of the gelding. "He's a laid-back type, doesn't do much more than he has to, very professional and straightforward. We had Adie Coleman down, who's ridden him in the past, to ride him here, and he says he feels as good as ever." A jockey has not yet been finalised for Flintoff on Monday, though Vaughan has Richard Johnson at the top of his wish list.
The Bridgend-born trainer, whose team at Pant Wilkin has already burgeoned to not far short of 100, is hoping for a wet, not white, Christmas. "The thing Flintoff does best is stays," he said. "He grinds his races out, so the softer the ground and the more gruelling the test the better. We'd like a deluge."
Flintoff, second in the Midlands Grand National on his latest run, is judged a 12-1 shot for the Welsh version. Of the 33 left in the three-and-three-quarter mile contest at yesterday's declaration stage, the Williams-trained Mon Mome, winner of the real thing at Aintree, heads the weights. The well-backed 9-2 favourite is Le Beau Bai, from Richard Lee's yard, with the Paul Nicholls candidate The Tother One second market choice.
Follow that Star: Yuletide feast in prospect
There may now be no racing for three days but after the famine, comes the feast. The King George VI Chase and Kauto Star's tilt at a record four consecutive King George VI Chases is not just the centrepiece of the weekend's table but one of the star turns of the season, but there is plenty to savour on the Kempton undercard too.
Remember last year, when Punjabi took what proved to be the most expensive fall in racing history when poised to win the Christmas Hurdle? If he had added that race to his previous success in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle and subsequent Champion Hurdle triumph, he would have scooped the £1m bonus offered to any horse to take all three of Britain's two-mile Grade One contests.
On Saturday this season's Fighting Fifth winner Go Native steps up to the plate in the Kempton contest to try for the second leg of the WBX-sponsored jackpot. The Noel Meade-trained six-year-old will face a maximum of eight rivals, including Celestial Halo and Binocular, both on the Champion Hurdle redemption trail for the home side.
The already wide-open market for the Cheltenham crown is the more so for the cloud now hanging over Hurricane Fly, until this week second favourite but now sidelined with a leg injury. Three days after the Christmas Hurdle, another of the other main Irish fancies, Solwhit, will turn out for the December Hurdle at Leopardstown.
Before the senior chasing celebrities meet in the King George, some stars of the future will be on view in the Feltham Novices Chase, which will provide a first sighting in this country of Nicky Henderson's exciting French recruit Long Run.
The four-year-old is already a multiple top-level winner round France's premier jump track, Auteuil, and while his class is not in doubt, his new trainer is as interested as any to see if he can adapt to a different arena.
"They are big fences at Auteuil," Henderson said, "but the French horses have a different technique. They tend to go through the top rather than over the top and it will be important that he keeps his height up at Kempton."
Courses hope thaw will deliver in time for Christmas cards
Of the seven Boxing Day jump meetings scheduled, the first to come under serious doubt is the relatively minor one at Towcester, where prospects will be assessed during an inspection this morning. "The forecast is not encouraging," said the clerk of the course, Robert Bellamy. "We've had two inches of snow and I don't think temperatures are going to rise."
There was similar seasonal scenery at Wetherby, Sedgefield, Market Rasen, Wincanton and Huntingdon, with officials' fingers crossed that the warmer front forecast for Christmas Day materialises, though Wolverhampton has no worries about its all-weather card.
Kempton, which has been under frost covers for a week to protect the King George VI Chase fixture, is the only jump track Britain currently raceable. "We're in great shape," said the clerk of the course Barney Clifford. "I don't anticipate any problems and we're looking forward to a great two days."Reuse content