Speedsters in Doumen shadow

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The Independent Online

Until the latest weather system deposited an inch and a half of rain on Kempton Park the night before last, the one decent bet for the King George VI Chase was that The Fellow's race record time of 5min 46.4sec, set in 1991, would be in considerable danger. Twelve entries now remain in Boxing Day's feature event, of which no fewer than seven either need, or like, to force the pace. Even the Bond movie is unlikely to be as fast or furious.

The thought of perhaps half-a-dozen front-runners, including such leading fancies as Barton Bank, Merry Gale, One Man and Dublin Flyer, egging each other on from the start is not one to comfort many punters. A shortage of pace will often throw up strange results, but too much can be just as dangerous, as any backer of eight years' standing will recall. The longest-priced winner in the King George's 48-year history, Nupsula at 25-1 in 1987, picked up the pieces after Desert Orchid and Beau Ranger set off like whippets, only to capitulate tamely when it really mattered.

Nupsala, of course, announced the arrival of Francois Doumen as a serious player in Britain's big jumps races. The Frenchman's record now includes three more wins in the King George (thanks to The Fellow in 1991 and 1992 and Algan 12 months ago), not forgetting The Fellow's Gold Cup in 1994. He will be represented on Tuesday by both Algan and Val D'Alene, winner of the Racing Post Chase over the King George course and distance last February.

By now, you might think, British punters would have learned that they discount Doumen at their peril, yet both of his runners are available at 16-1. Algan, it is true, was a very fortunate winner 12 months ago, when Barton Bank departed at the final fence, but the 16-1 about Val D'Alene is probably the last crumb of value in what is generally a very tight market. Monsieur Le Cure, incidentally, was yesterday declared to be a runner only if the ground is good or softer. Last year's King George runner- up will otherwise contest the Rowland Meyrick Chase at Wetherby.

The second big race of the holidays, the Welsh National at Chepstow on Wednesday, will have a maximum of 20 runners following yesterday's declarations. Master Oats, whose victory in the race last year was the first major hint of the glory awaiting him at Cheltenham three months later, is not among them, however.

Instead, the Gold Cup winner will wait for the Ericsson Chase at Leopardstown the next day, leaving Miinnehoma, the 1994 Grand National winner, to head the weights. Miinnehoma is one of three entries from Martin Pipe, whose record in the race is better even than Doumen's at Kempton. Pipe has saddled the winner five times in the last seven years.

But it may not be six out of eight, though, since the 10-1 offered against Miinnehoma by Coral, the sponsors, is the shortest price of any of Pipe's trio this year. The favourite is Earth Summit, a former Scottish National winner, at 7-2. The firm then bet: 9-2 Flyer's Nap, 11-2 Suny Bay, 13- 2 Superior Finish, 8-1 Grange Brake and Tartan Tyrant, 10-1 bar.

The Christmas Hurdle at Kempton the same day is likely to see the return to hurdling of Montelado, one of the favourites for the Champion Hurdle but unraced over timber since the 1995 championship. Pat Flynn's Irish challenger will face six rivals at most, with Atours and Absalom's Lady, both trained by David Elsworth, his most credible rivals.

The weights were also released yesterday for one of the first big events of the new year, the Victor Chandler Chase at Ascot, offering yet more evidence that Viking Flagship's reign as the best two-miler in training may be nearing its end. Sound Man, who beat Viking Flaghip comprehensively in the Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown, is now rated just 3lb below David Nicholson's runner. Success at Ascot on 13 January would surely take him to the top of the pile.