No point saving the best until last, I believe La Bague Au Roi will be the best chasing mare since Dawn Run. She should win the Kauto Star Novices Chase (15/2 available) before going on to victory at the Cheltenham Festival, for which she is 12/1 to win any race. Those of a nervous disposition should note that she’s been beaten at each of the past two Cheltenham Festivals and her trainer Warren Greatrex has said he might avoid the 2019 Festival with La Bague Au Roi. If she wins today Greatrex would need his blood replaced by iced water not to go to the festival with the best horse he’s had and might ever have.
Also, those Festival defeats were over hurdles. She was a good hurdler, but to my eye chasing has transformed her. She moves with great purpose and enthusiasm now and looks much more athletic. She seems to have muscled up since last season and is a big mare anyway, although she’ll look small today against Santini and Topofthegame.
La Bague Au Roi is unbeaten in four races going right handed in the UK. Her one trip ‘abroad’ was to Punchestown last season when she was well beaten by Faugheen on her first run after wind surgery.
The Worlds End impressed me enough to back him for the RSA after his Cheltenham victory (I believe La Bague Au Roi will go for the JLT, though have backed her for any race just in case). He too seems a different animal over fences. Sometimes the bigger obstacles transform a horse.
I was hoping The Worlds End wouldn’t turn up here to test my loyalty to the mare, but I found no hesitation in choosing. Like all top notch mares and fillies, arguably they should be racing against geldings at level weights. But the outdated WFA scale gives them 7lbs, and I’d back her today even without that advantage.
Bags Groove, The Worlds End and La Bague Au Roi have put in excellent jumping performances. Santini was safe at Newbury, and Topofthegame mostly all right on his fencing debut when he appeared to be spooked by the tape going up and lost many lengths.
Big horses can act perfectly well round Kempton, but I like to see them doing it before backing them. Santini and Topofthegame might just find the sharpish track here and the pace pushing them into errors. Bags Groove and La Bague Au Roi are more lightly made, as is The Worlds End. The jumping should be a joy to watch.
Pound for pound, this might well turn out the best quality field ever assembled for this race (used to be the Feltham Chase). We won’t know until a season or two has passed, but Santini, Bags Groove, The Worlds End and Topofthegame all look potentially high class. Whatever wins this ought to go right to the top. A fascinating race in prospect.
The King George too is fascinatng, though perhaps for different reasons. Bristol De Mai is one of my all time favourites and would have garnered much more universal respect had his trainer made a better fist of handling him. Nigel Twiston-Davies finally admitted after the Betfair this season that he’d been at fault and that any blame for a poor performance from the grey this season would be down to him. His biggest blunder, in my opinion, was sending the horse to the Cotswold Chase back in January – a well documented graveyard for Gold Cup horses (I see the winning trainer from that race has already said Definitly Red will miss it this year).
I strongly suspect Bristol De Mai needs a long rest between races. I think too that the secret to him is a proper galloping track. Kempton is too sharp imo, but defeat today would not affect his Gold Cup chances in my book, and I fancy him for that race if Twister leaves him at home and makes that big race the grey’s first of the New Year.
Thistlecrack, a past victim of The Cotswold Chase (remember that raw battle with Many Clouds, who did not survive the race?), has never been quite the same since. His best form lately was arguably last time behind Bristol De Mai in the Betfair. He didn’t have a flawless round of jumping but looked fresher at the finish than everything bar the winner, and Tom Scudamore was wisely kind to him when his winning chance had gone. I just don’t know what to expect of him here. He might like the ground better than most of these, (with the exception of Might Bite) but my guess is that there will be something of a bounce from Haydock.
When I saw Politologue go to post at Ascot last time, I went wow! He’s one of the most powerfully built chasers I’ve seen and symmetrical with it. He has the talent to run a big race but his stamina is unproven, and I think the pace and unrelenting gallop will find him out. Kempton’s deceptive in this flat 3 miles; it’s easy to fall into the belief that speed horses can see it out. But it can be a brutal test of stamina with a strong pace from the outset, even on decent ground. In fact, goodish ground could exacerbate the stamina factor as they will probably go even faster from the start.
Choosing to drop out and wait for the others to run themselves into the ground can be a big gamble for a jockey. Hardened front runners like Coneygree, Bristol De Mai and Native River can hit a rhythm that can hold, even as they slow, all the way to the post. Coming from a long way back with perfect timing will be for the coolest only.
I wonder if Johnson on Native River will decide from the outset not to get into a battle for the lead? The horse is a tempting price, based, apparently, on one poor run at Kempton and the fact that the ground might be good. Well, he’s won twice right handed by a big margin each time. And the official ground on the eve of the race is good to soft; he’s won 4 from 7 on that going and he has won on good ground (1 from 5 – placed in the other 4). I thought he ran a fine race at Haydock given that he looked beaten some way out and he is the rock solid horse here from a stamina viewpoint. Aside from the fact he’s a Gold Cup winner, Native River is remarkably consistent and he looks too big here at 6/1.
Conversely, Waiting Patiently looks a poor price. I like him an awful lot and thought he was on his way to the top after that Ascot defeat of Cue Card. But any horse with the tactical speed he has is highly likely, in my view, to have trouble seeing out a fast run King George. That’s aside from the fact he hasn’t run for a long time. Hughes usually tries to switch him off and lob along and I just don’t think the pace will allow that today. He’s a safe jumper overall but can be a touch careful at times and if that happens here, he will lose too much ground. This race will test his jockey’s nerve like nothing else.
Might Bite’s a bonny horse, but with a quirk or two. Henderson’s team spent a long time trying to iron out those quirks last summer and I wonder if they’ve cooled the flames a bit too much. The excitement has gone from him since his novice days. On the stamina side, I thought he travelled last time like he wanted 2 miles rather than a staying trip. Within that, perhaps there was a flash of his old front-running brilliance trying to get out, although Nico kept reining him gently back.
I’d love to see him return to battling for the lead from the outset, but his run last time and, arguably in the Gold Cup, suggested stamina is not going to be his strong suit. If Nico does drop him in again, even at a hot pace, Might Bite’s huge stride might see him having to be just eased back once or twice and that’s an energy sacrifice. Also, his trainer said he was frightened by hitting a fence last time. If that’s true, the last place he wants to be taking on a good field is in this cauldron.
I cannot have Clan Des Obeaux, Tea For Two or Double Shuffle but I very much can have the 11-y-o Coneygree at 25/1. He has fewer than 7 racing miles a year on his clock and Cheltenham last time showed he retains the enthusiasm and the engine. This is the first time since his Gold Cup season I can recall him being trouble free between two races. And on his only other appearance at Kempton he left the Kauto Star field in tatters, winning by a distance. If you had to choose a track and trip on good to soft ground for the grandest of swansongs for Coneygree, this would be it. I’ve backed him and had a saver on Native River.