Before the 2.30 at Kempton on Boxing Day, the focus will be on the 1.35 at less-exalted Thurles this afternoon. The Horse And Jockey Hotel Hurdle at the Co Tipperary track is the race in which Ruby Walsh, due to partner the red-hot favourite, Kauto Star, in the King George VI Chase, makes his comeback after dislocating his left shoulderin a crunching fall at Cheltenham five weeks ago.
Walsh will put his injury to the test first on Paramount, one of the outsiders in a small field, and later in the afternoon on Cousin Peter in another hurdle race. The 28-year-old Irishman who has had the frustration of watching stand-in Sam Thomas, the No 2 at Paul Nicholls' stable, win a string of good prizes in his enforced absence has been riding out for his father, Ted, Paramount's trainer, for the past week. "I'm feeling good," he said, "and can't wait to be back in the swing of things."
Kauto Star, in particular, is one partner Walsh has missed. "He is thrilling," he said. "The power you feel, waiting on tap. You give him one squeeze, and that's it." The seven-year-old is bidding to become the 12th dual winner of the three-mile contest, on something of a specialist's track, that more often than the Gold Cup identifies the seasonal staying chasing champion.
Rivals to Clive Smith's top-class colour-bearer will include the two who chased him home last year, Exotic Dancer and Racing Demon, which means he must defy a statistical anomaly. On the seven previous occasions when the first three in the King George crossed swords again the following year, the winner was beaten. Arkle came in second to Dormant with the wholly valid excuse that he had broken a foot, but none of the other six Burrough Hill Lad, Desert Orchid, Barton Bank, One Man, First Gold and Florida Pearl could finish in the first three. Five of the placees thirds Dormant, Wayward Lad and The Fellow, and runners-up Florida Pearl and Best Mate went one or two better.
Wednesday will be Exotic Dancer's fourth crack at Kauto Star, but though Jonjo O'Neill's charge got closer than ever when beaten just half a length in the Betfair Chase at Haydock last month, his rider, Tony McCoy, is realistic enough to expect once again to be following a star at Christmas. "Getting to him is one thing," he said, "getting past him quite another."
The first prize for the King George is 120,000, no mean sum but, just as 12 months ago, much more is at stake. The race is the second leg of a treble that could bring a bonus of 1 million, and last year Kauto Star famously scooped the jackpot when he added the Gold Cup to victories at Kempton and the first leg, the Betfair Chase.
A million would hardly buy a leg in a blue-blooded Flat racer but in jump racing it is a proper carrot, and 35 minutes before Kauto Star tries to emulate Christmas past, the hurdler Harchibald will also be aiming for a similar Christmas present. Seven figures is also on offer should the treble of the Fighting Fifth, Christmas and Champion Hurdles be completed.
Harchibald, the winner at Newcastle earlier this month, is the original equine riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. The Noel Meade-trained eight-year-old has all the talent, but at times it most certainly exceeds his enthusiasm, despite Paul Carberry's most tactful efforts in the saddle. But the gelding raced only three times last year and may have forgotten that racing can be hard work, and perhaps that is the key to his box.
For Walsh, the week's riches waiting to be unlocked continueat Chepstow on Thursday, where he is due to partner the second favourite, Gungadu, in theWelsh National.
Then at Leopardstown on Friday, where he will renew his partnership with yet another of the chasing celebrities at Manor Farm, Denman who is vying for Gold Cup favouritism with Kauto Star since his runaway Hennessy Gold Cup win in the Lexus Chase.