AFTER a week when a new racing hero emerged in the shape of the hugely impressive grey steeplechaser Simonsig, racing fans are now having to contemplate an under-par King George VI chase at Kempton on Boxing Day.
The legendary Kauto Star has retired, and the defection through injury of Al Ferof, plus yesterday’s announcement that Sir Des Champs will contest the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown, with Sizing Europe also staying in Ireland, means that Simonsig’s trainer Nicky Henderson has an outstanding chance with favourite Long Run.
Henderson’s team usually peak for the Cheltenham National Hunt Festival in March, but such has been his stable’s form so far that Henderson is hot favourite to lift the champion trainer’s title.
The loss of Big Buck’s as well as Al Ferof – both out for the season – has damaged his great rival Paul Nicholls’ chances, but in truth this looked like Henderson’s year anyway. In Simonsig he has introduced a chaser whose performance at Ascot on Friday drew comparisons with Desert Orchid himself – yes, the grey could be that good. He’s only a novice, but Simonsig jumped so brilliantly and shrugged off the heavy going with such aplomb that he must be considered as the next big star of jumps racing.
Last year’s Cheltenham Gold Cup hero Long Run is still the stable’s star three-mile chaser, however, and the winner of the 2010 running of the King George that was postponed to January 2011 is said to be in good form, with last month’s Betfair Chase in which he was beaten into second place by Silviano Conti having apparently brought the seven-year-old to the peak of fitness.
The going at Kempton was changed to soft with patches of heavy yesterday, and though he might prefer better ground, Long Run won in quagmires in his youthful career in France. Barring accidents – and he has never failed to complete a race over fences – Long Run should win.
Who can beat him? Cue Card, the son of King’s Theatre trained by Colin Tizzard, is being backed in some quarters and currently stands at 11-2 second favourite, but he has never won beyond two miles four furlongs, and the step up to three miles in Grade 1 company will be his undoing – unless there’s something in his make-up that Cue Card has not yet shown.
It is another Henderson horse, Riverside Theatre, that might fill the second place. On the official handicap ratings he is second only to Long Run and although it is his first run of the season, Henderson is sure to have the eight-year-old ready to go. Another likely Henderson entrant, Finian’s Rainbow, was withdrawn yesterday as well, but Long Run and Riverside Theatre should be enough for Henderson to gain a 1-2, as he did with the same two horses when the race was run in January 2011 after a postponement.
Grand Crus from the David Pipe stable is certainly in with a shout, and is the definite each-way value in the field, but the race may be coming too soon for Kauto Stone, who is the Paul Nicholls-Ruby Walsh contender, though the six-year-old will be a force in the future.