Unlike the Cheltenham Gold Cup, deeper into the season over a more demanding course, steeplechasing's midwinter championship has historically indulged its previous winners. Kauto Star, of course, has won both races in his time, but returns to Kempton today, in search of his third consecutive success in the Stan James King George VI Chase, as a deposed champion.
His defeat at Cheltenham, by his stablemate Denman, was the first of three failures in four outings, meaning that his status as favourite today rests largely on past glories. But he did show much of his old élan at Down Royal first time out, admittedly against inferior rivals, and again until thumping the third last at Haydock last time, after which he palpably lost rhythm.
Kauto Star (2.40) may be best fresh nowadays, and will have been trained accordingly in the meantime by Paul Nicholls. There can be little doubt that he is now trying to stay at the summit, rather than striking out for new ones. But he would not need his very best form to beat these, and his proven felicity with the demands of this race surely entitles him to loyalty at 5-4. Since Wayward Lad won his third King George in 1985, it has been won twice by The Fellow, See More Business and Kicking King, not to mention four times by the perennial ghost of Christmas past, Desert Orchid.
By the same token, another reverse today would surely confirm a decline in Kauto Star, who has after all had a fairly arduous career. But for now he deserves the benefit of the doubt, not least with his most plausible rivals needing to prove stamina, in the case of Voy Por Ustedes, or stable form, with Messrs Pipe and Twiston-Davies.
The Nicholls stable has itself not been in quite the same rampant form this season as last, but that has much to do with the resurgence of Nicky Henderson. Both men are represented by an unusually bold novice in the Stan James' Feltham Chase, and an authoritative winner could well be returning next year for the main event.
After The Market Man's flamboyant return from another long absence at Newbury last month, Barry Geraghty dismounted and offered the startling opinion that he had never ridden a more natural jumper. But Breedsbreeze (1.30) has long promised to come into his own over fences, and was no less dashing in another small field at Wincanton, a track with obvious similarities to this one.
With Henderson threatening a title challenge, this looks a key afternoon for Nicholls, who also has prospects in the big hurdle race through Pierrot Lunaire. Disappointing on softer ground on his reappearance, he ran the brilliant Binocular close over this course and distance last season and will appreciate the emphasis on speed this time. He still has improvement to find, however, to catch up with Punjabi, the Smurfit Champion Hurdle third, who maintained his progress when thwarting Sublimity on his resumption at Wetherby. A field lacking depth, however, could yet set up Harchibald (next best 2.05) for one last hurrah.
Over the years this horse has been cruelly maligned as yellow in a finish, seldom more so than when worried out of this prize last year. He was probably in front too long that day, however, and will always make a generous effort on the bridle. In his prime he could have had these for breakfast and, with conditions likely to flatter him, there must be every chance that none of them proves able to make him feel his age just yet. Odds of 8-1 look remarkably generous.
A big weight disguises the strong likelihood that Pressgang (3.15) is very fairly treated in the novices' handicap chase. He shaped nicely in defeat at Taunton last time and finally looks ready to fulfil the potential he showed in his youth, when beaten only in a photo for the Champion Bumper.
Channel 4 also takes in the valuable Skybet Rowland Meyrick Handicap Chase at Wetherby, favoured over the King George by connections of Tidal Bay after he disclosed a distaste for right-handed tracks at Sandown last time, albeit when running very well against the champion two-miler, Master Minded. Even so, a new trip and top weight together mean that he may have his work cut out trying to concede a stone to State Of Play (1.45), given a nice break since confirming himself best fresh on his reappearance in the Charlie Hall Chase over course and distance.
The first of four days' absorbing sport at the Leopardstown Christmas meeting features the Durkan New Homes Novices' Chase, notable for the visit of Tatenen, sensational winner of both starts over fences in the autumn, at Aintree and Cheltenham. The card should also identify the leading juvenile in Ireland when Tharawaat and Lethal Weapon contest its other Grade One prize, while Cousin Vinny, the champion bumper horse, seeks a maiden success over hurdles in the opener.
Tatenen, of course, is yet another star singling out the sport's number one Christmas stable. Mind you, Nicholls has evidently decided that life is complicated enough, without giving Denman his comeback over hurdles at Wincanton on such a momentous afternoon elsewhere. But the fact that he was earnestly contemplating the possibility at least suggests that Denman will be resurfacing early in the new year. And, as it happens, Denman's absence leaves his stablemate PRIDE OF DULCOTE (nap 1.15) a clear run as bet of the day.
Nap: Pride Of Dulcote(Wincanton 1.15)