Today's six-race card at the Sunbury track, with the King George VI Chase as its centrepiece, may not have attracted as many runners as usual because of the forecast good going, but it is no less demanding, and while every race holds its own fascination, care is required if punters are to emerge unscathed.
There will be those, for instance, for whom One Man, favourite for the King George VI Chase, will represent an adult version of Santa Claus, to be relied upon utterly to foot the bill for the annual debauch. With six days left to the New Year, however, it is time to practice a truly worthwhile resolution, which is to avoid odds-on favourites at all costs.
This is not to say that Gordon Richards's chaser does not have a very good chance of becoming the first horse to win the King George twice in the same year, the weather having delayed last season's victory until early January. Yet at current odds of around 8-13 (he may well drift on- course), it is vital to ask whether he is really as far ahead of his rivals on the form book as that quote implies. The answer must be that he is not.
One Man's last three runs include two wins, but how much he has achieved in beating either Barton Bank or Monsieur Le Cure must be open to doubt. Sandwiched in between, meanwhile, was his dreadful performance when favourite for the Gold Cup at Cheltenham. In the final analysis, there is precious little rock-solid top-class form here on which to start risking the sort of sums necessary to make a bet worthwhile.
With eight runners declared, an each-way bet is a far more appealing alternative. Fears that the race would be without two of its stars were eased when Rough Quest and Mr Mulligan were both given the go ahead to run on Christmas Eve. Mr Mulligan's participation was confirmed after he passed a fitness test while Rough Quest's trainer, Terry Casey, decided the ground was suitable for this year's Grand National winner.
Casey travelled from his base at Dorking, Surrey on Christmas Eve to check that the going would not be too fast for the 10-year-old. "At the moment we are running," he said. "It's fast and it's not ideal but it is raceable and there is no jar."
Rough Quest is no longer a fair price at 7-2, since three miles on a flat track with fast going is unlikely to be a sufficient test. The same may be true of Nahthen Lad, while Couldnt Be Better's name is an increasing embarrassment and Barton Bank is always likely to make a desperate mistake at a vital stage.
Two options remain. Trying Again proved that he gets today's trip when second to Belmont King at Chepstow three weeks ago, has a touch of class too, and is a very tempting 20-1 chance. It is STRONG PROMISE (nap 2.15), however, who can prevail today.
Geoff Hubbard's runner showed himself to be one of the best hurdlers in Britain when a neck runner-up to Urubande in the Aintree Hurdle in April, but his magnificent physique had always held the prospect of better to come over fences. So it proved when, despite his youth and inexperience, he was beaten only narrowly by Challenger Du Luc in the Murphy's Gold Cup, and a subsequent victory at Ascot made it clear that it was not a fluke performance. One Man may well be the best of his age-group over fences, but a member of the next generation could now be ready to shove his somewhat lacklustre predecessors aside.
It is a sign of Strong Promise's precocity that he is younger than all bar one of the field for the Grade One Feltham Novices' Chase. His fellow five-year-old, though, is the one to beat, for while the likes of See More Business and Fine Thyne are undoubtedly useful prospects, the defeat by Aardwolf (next best 1.10) of Major Summit at Sandown last time should prove to be the best form on offer today. The novice hurdle too will be just as revealing, and Nordance Prince (12.40), who has more speed than stamina, should find two miles around Kempton on fastish ground an ideal combination. Chai Yo (1.40) and Uluru (3.15) will go well in the handicap hurdles.
The feature event elsewhere is the Rowland Meyrick Handicap Chase at Wetherby, in which The Grey Monk (2.15), runner-up to Coome Hill in the Hennessy, could find the Lo Stregone is his most significant opponent. Gordon Richards is almost overburdened with top-class grey chasers at present, and The Grey Monk, at least, should take one of the best prizes of Christmas back to Cumbria.