Dreamers dig for Gold
Christmas menu puts claims of Festival wannabes to test
CHRISTMAS is a time of festive cheer, many a good session, exchanging of the odd present, reconnecting with the 'Man Above' and the best week of horse racing this side of the Cheltenham Festival.
By this time next week, we should have picked up plenty of clues in relation to Cheltenham, which for so many is the be-all and end-all.
It has been widely accepted that this year's Festival is due to be run on softer ground than normal, so the clues we obtain over the final week of this magnificent sporting year on testing racing ground should be more relevant come March than is usually the norm.
However, of all the little pointers we will pick up over the coming week or so, it is the Gold Cup picture that may become clearest of all.
This year's Gold Cup has all the hallmarks of being a vintage renewal but, despite that, this year's King George doesn't have the same aura about it and may be a race that does more to scratch horses off the shortlist than give them a more prominent position in the pecking order.
Your current strong favourite for the King George is Long Run. 5/2 is the best you'll find about Nicky Henderson's charge for a race that the now retired Kauto Star beat him in 12 months ago.
Since then, he just about won a Grade Two at Newbury that he really could have been expected to win by much more, he was third in the Gold Cup to the sadly ill-fated Synchronised in a race that has questionable form, and Silviniaco Conti bossed him in the recent Betfair Chase to hand down a two-and-a-half length defeat.
From this corner, he will either not win the King George, or else if he does it will prove to be a very poor renewal of the prestigious race.
Sizing Europe is a big loss from that one, although the decision of the connections not to run is undoubtedly the correct one.
Heavy ground has shelved their plans to step up the former Champion Chase winner at Kempton and he is now most likely to stick to two miles and a bit in the Paddy Power Dial-A-Bet at Leopardstown next week. If he is to attempt a step up, the Hennessy looks his last option.
Cue Card, Riverside Theatre and Kauto Stone are the others set to feature prominently in the King George on the presumption that Willie Mullins leaves Sir Des Champs at home.
Connections of Cue Card are bullish, but they often have been. He steps up in trip and looks a far better prospect for Wednesday than Long Run if you are to take his form behind Bobs Worth and even Sprinter Sacre, although the latter is harder to assess.
Riverside Theatre hasn't been seen since he pulled up at Aintree behind Follow The Plan, but he is a Ryanair winner and it will be interesting to see what is between him and Long Run at the death irrespective of their actual finishing positions. Kauto Stone is another who should handle the ground and seems to have improved over the summer, but has another step to take before becoming a Gold Cup horse.
If Long Run wins, which I personally don't think he will, bookmakers will cut him for the Gold Cup and he'll be made a major player in that market, despite the fact that Bobs Worth, Silviniaco Conti, Flemenstar and Sir Des Champs would all probably leave him behind in March.
Bobs Worth and Silviniaco Conti have set their stall out already and will enjoy the Christmas period like a teacher with nothing to do for a few weeks but take it easy. Those two are the benchmark and now it's up to the rest to put out claims.
Flemenstar well and truly stamped his authority on the John Durkan, but it will only be once he puts in a similar display in the Lexus over the three miles that many still insist on saying he won't stay, that he will be globally recognised as a Gold Cup horse.
If Peter Casey's stable star wins the Lexus with the same conviction of the John Durkan, we could even have a new favourite for March. If Sir Des Champs reverses the form, we could be down a Gold Cup contender. It's a fine line.
It is hard to envisage a dramatic turnaround in the form book between the pair, however, although that wouldn't be a major concern just yet for Sir Des Champs followers as finishing behind Flemenstar at this stage is nothing to be ashamed of. And remember, Sir Des Champs is a dual Cheltenham winner and the Cotswolds could yet bring out the best in him.
First Lieutenant and China Rock will form a Mouse Morris raid on the Lexus and both earned their place to line up, while Tidal Bay fronts the travelling raid of Paul Nicholls. Be it ruled out or promoted in the Gold Cup equation, expect plenty of stir before we ring in the new year.