On both sides of the Irish Sea, the battle lines for Cheltenham in March are being drawn. At Kempton on Boxing Day, Kauto Star and Long Run, the two best staying chasers in Britain, will face off for the fourth time in an eight-strong field for the King George VI Chase. And at Leopardstown two days later Quito De La Roque and Rubi Light, Ireland's most progressive putative Gold Cup challengers, head the 13 entries for the Lexus Chase.
Only once in the five times he has contested the King George has Kauto Star had fewer rivals in the mid-season Grade One showpiece. That was back in 2007, when he cruised home from Our Vic and five others. Monday's field may yet be pruned; if the ground, currently forecast to be good to soft, deteriorates markedly, Captain Chris will not take part.
Kauto Star already had an unprecedented four successive King Georges on his CV when beaten into third behind Long Run last season, a position he also filled behind the same horse in the Gold Cup before turning the tables at Haydock last month.
On that occasion, Kauto Star looked back to his imperious best, even at the age of 11, but his trainer Paul Nicholls, perhaps clutching a talisman, still insists his veteran warrior's much younger rival is the one to be vanquished. Punters who bet with their heads rather than their hearts agree; six-year-old Long Run, from the Nicky Henderson yard, is 5-4 favourite for a repeat.
Kauto Star holds second spot in the market, judged 7-2 for a record fifth victory, with his own stablemate Master Minded, the former two-mile king, third best at 5-1. "Kauto is a stayer who has pace," added Nicholls, "and Master Minded is a speed horse who will, we hope, stay. It's going to be fascinating."
Nicholls has won two of the past four Lexus Chases, with the now-retired Denman and What A Friend, and yesterday supplemented Noland to the fray. The Colm Murphy-trained Quito De La Roque, on a six-timer after beating Sizing Europe at Down Royal early in November, heads the betting.
Chris McGrath's Nap
Wings Of Smoke (2.15 Ffos Las) Has had surgery to help his breathing since last seen and his current mark may be generous enough.
Jumps Road (1.10 Ffos Las) Shaped well enough before falling on his hurdling debut.
One to watch
The well-related Oscar's Secret (Kim Bailey) belied his 100-1 odds on his debut.
Where the money's going
The champion hurdler Hurricane Fly is 8-11 with Paddy Power for the Festival Hurdle at Leopardstown next week.Reuse content