It's time for a different Christmas story; the days of following a star on the racecourse at this time of year have come and gone. But though the retirement of Kauto Star, the only horse to win a King George VI Chase five times, has left a void that will not be filled any time soon, the prospect of an intriguing 62nd running of the Boxing Day showpiece he made his own means his absence can be more cheerfully borne.
The great horse will be there at Kempton Park on Wednesday to lead the pre-race parade. And whichever of those following behind him in a field of proven types and upwardly mobile youngsters emerges to launch the midwinter championship's new era will thoroughly earn his laurels.
Projected underfoot conditions – soft with heavy patches – mean that the £200,000 William Hill-sponsored contest will provide one of the most demanding tests in its history. The Sunbury track, sited on former gravel workings, is notably free-draining; indeed, the only time the h-word has previously appeared in the ground description for a King George was for the first running, in 1937. But incessant recent rain means not much of the crisp and even, but plenty of the deep for this year's edition.
The King George generally provides a contrast to the Gold Cup, with the qualities needed for the former, over Kempton's flat three miles, not always the same as for the latter, over Cheltenham's undulating three-and-a-quarter. But on Wednesday, stamina and the ability to operate on extreme going will be at a premium.
The favourite, Long Run, the winner of both races two seasons ago, ticks most of the boxes and has been beaten only once at Kempton, when he lost his King George crown to Kauto Star's record-breaking performance 12 months ago. But he has not scored at the highest level in four tries since his Cheltenham win and his price of 2-1 looks short enough.
One of the subplots to the valuable Christmas programme is the duel for the trainer's title between Paul Nicholls and Nicky Henderson, the latter aiming to deprive his rival of eight in a row. Henderson has an eye-catching back-up to Long Run with the seasonal debutant Riverside Theatre, who split his stablemate and Kauto Star two runnings ago.
Nicholls's challenge for an eighth King George – Kauto Star's five, and two from See More Business – rests with just one horse. But though Kauto Stone is his stable's standard-bearer only by default, after injury to the one-time second favourite and exercise companion, Al Ferof, perhaps it is the season for serendipity.
The six-year-old, as his name might imply, is a half-brother to you know who, though you would not know it to look at him. The younger horse is an undistinguished whole-coloured chestnut, not a flashy white-blazed bright bay. He has neither his celebrated sibling's size and scope – at a fighting weight of 500kg, he is some 50kg the lighter – nor his look-at-me presence. "He doesn't even look first cousin to Kauto Star," said Nicholls.
Comparisons are inevitable rather than odious, for Kauto Stone is entitled to hold his head up in his own right. His eight victories include two Grade Ones, a chase in his native France at four and a defeat of First Lieutenant in gruelling conditions on his first try over three miles at Down Royal last month. And he, too, jumps well, at times spectacularly well. That latest run was the best so far from the gelding, who has had corrective surgery on his airway, and may not yet reflect his talent. "He's a staying horse," Nicholls said, "and we were probably training him wrong going over shorter distances. He has been headstrong but I think perhaps he was struggling with his breathing, and panicking a bit. He has certainly improved, mentally and physically."
Kauto Stone, who carries the colours of investment fund manager Robin Geffen, may be opposed on Wednesday by several above him in last year's novice pecking order, headed by Cue Card, representing the father-and-son team of Colin and Joe Tizzard. The exciting six-year-old is second market choice after a spectacular return to action at Exeter, but has yet to tackle three miles.
Grands Crus won last year's novice three-miler at the meeting in a faster time than the King George, but flopped on his comeback and has had airway surgery since. His trainer, David Pipe, who also has the dour stayer Junior in the race, will make a late decision about his first-string's participation.
It has been a rollercoaster few weeks for Nicholls, including the well-documented contentious removal of his all-time favourite from Manor Farm.
However, in Kauto Stone he has a progressive young horse who stays three miles, is proven in heavy ground and, as things have worked out, will have the assistance of Ruby Walsh.
De Sivola can start dreaming
As usual, the Long Walk Hurdle produced an emphatic success, but with the difference that the name on the roll of honour had changed. With marathon champion Big Buck's – winner of the past three editions of the division's first Grade One contest of the season – sidelined through injury, successors are now putting down markers. The first to do so was Reve De Sivola at Ascot yesterday, routing his rivals by 14 lengths. On his previous outing a hard-held Big Buck's had left him trailing by nine lengths.
In fairness, Reve De Sivola had been a smart staying prospect as a novice over hurdles, twice a top-level winner, before switching less successfully to fences. He relished yesterday's rain-sodden conditions, leading from halfway and bounding over the last under Richard Johnson before powering clear of Smad Place. He is now 10-1 to take the World Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival. "He won't necessarily have another run before then," his trainer, Nick Williams, said. "And he'll need heavy ground to show his best."
The afternoon's richest prize, £150,000 for The Ladbroke, proved a benefit for the sponsors and their bookmaking colleagues as 25-1 outsiders Cause Of Causes, Petit Robin and Dan Breen filled the first three places and the 11-2 favourite, Cash And Go, unseated his rider early in the piece.
Cause Of Causes, ridden by Davy Condon for the Co Meath-based Gordon Elliott, was the first Irish-trained winner of the two-miler. The four-year-old followed Petit Robin and Dan Breen over the last hurdle but produced a smart change of gear to score by four lengths. "We were worried about the ground, but we thought he'd have a right chance if he did handle it," Elliott said.
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