Kauto Star, who two years ago closed out his own fifth of what are now eight Nicholls victories, led the field on to the course before 100-30 favourite Cue Card assumed responsibility for the vast majority of the three miles.
Jumping bravely and moving swiftly with his head held characteristically high, Cue Card appeared to have the Grade One in hand across nearly every blade of grass until just before the last fence, where he was overcome by his exertions on what was very testing ground and quickly passed and beaten three-and-a-half lengths by Noel Fehily and Silviniaco Conti.
Colin Tizzard’s Cue Card had finished almost six lengths ahead of Silviniaco Conti (7-2) when the pair met in last month’s Betfair Chase at Haydock and their rivalry may very well be stretched to a third round in the Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Fehily was constantly guarding against allowing Cue Card and Joe Tizzard the chance to stride on clear, and while he looked to be struggling to match him turning for the finish, the chestnut continued to respond to him.
Silviniaco Conti looked to have the world at his feet when marching away from dual King George winner Long Run (who parted company with Sam Waley-Cohen at the last when well-beaten here) in the previous renewal of the Betfair Chase but had taken a heavy fall three from home in the Gold Cup.
“I knew what Joe was going to do, we didn’t want to give him a soft lead. Cue Card was jumping better than us, but our horse stays forever,” said Nicholls. “If I’d given him a run in the Charlie Hall, he might have got closer at Haydock, but sometimes you win these races with a horse like him, that if you’d have got to the bottom of him at Haydock he wouldn’t have won today.
“Kempton is not an ideal track for him, he jumps a bit out to the left, but all the rain really changed it. I think if it had been quick ground today, we’d have been in trouble.
“We’ll aim him for the Gold Cup, and decide if he has a run before. I know people have said otherwise, but I thought he was cantering when he fell last season. It’s great to win this race with something different (apart from Kauto Star and See More Business). These are the ones you want to win.”
Fehily, regular rider for Silviniaco Conti’s owners Chris Giles and Jared Sullivan, said: “I was going to ride Kauto Star the year he got beat but I was injured and you wonder if you’re ever going to get another chance to win a King George.
“I grew up watching Desert Orchid in this race, so to actually go and win it is unbelievable.
“I was slow over three out and I thought Joe had got away from me, but this horse is as tough as nails. I’ve not ridden a Gold Cup winner, but I hope he’s a Gold Cup horse.”
Colin Tizzard would not be rushed into a rematch, but said: “I’m delighted for the horse – you saw the real Cue Card today and he just got outstayed.
“Joe gave him a great tactical ride, the other horse has beaten us, and that’s fine. It might be different on better ground.
“We’ve got another week to think about that (Gold Cup entries are revealed on 8 January).
“If you wanted an easy life you probably might (rule it out) but there’s no reason that with good ground round Cheltenham we couldn’t beat him again.”
Joe Tizzard said: “Coming to the last, he’s just emptied on me a little bit.
“Better ground would probably suit him better, but I’m making no excuses.
“I got into a lovely rhythm and fair play to Noel, he knew what he was doing. He sat on my girths. Every time I had a chance to fill up he was back there.” The winner’s stablemate, Al Ferof, was 11 lengths back in third in a race dominated by just two horses, and Nicholls said: “I was worried about soft ground for him. He might be more a Ryanair horse than a Gold Cup horse this year, but I’ll talk to John Hales (owner).”
Only two more of the nine starters, Mount Benbulben and Dynaste, finished.