The fog at Kempton Park became so thick during the novice chase on 27th December that the on-course caller was forced, rather farcically, to stop commentating entirely until the four horses entered the home straight. When he resumed, only three horses came back into view with their jockeys; the crowd were informed only that the exciting mare Maria’s Benefit had lost hers “somewhere and somehow”. The gloom then lifted entirely for Altior’s total demolition of his inferior rivals an hour later. This rather neatly sums up the British form over the festive period: the fog has lifted but only patchily, so let’s see where the view is clearest and where bettors should be careful not to rush in. The Irish form, meanwhile, is still so foggy that the only sensible course of action is to wait for things to come into focus, much like the Kempton commentator.
Like the Cheltenham festival, the spotlight falls first on the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle — and of course, this really is a race to focus on, because who wouldn’t want to kick off four days of betting with a winner? Sadly this column’s fancy, Eldorado Allen, was the victim of cruel luck, brought down by another runner at Aintree and injured badly enough as a result to be a likely absentee in March. But another Colin Tizzard novice may prove a more-than-worthy substitute: step forward the equine Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Elixir De Nutz. He twice won decent quality races at Cheltenham and then followed up with victory in the Grade One Tolworth Hurdle at Sandown, the race won by last season’s Supreme victor Summerville Boy. Tizzard’s super-sub showed a tenacious attitude to stay in front when headed on the run-in up the Sandown hill, and jumped perfectly over every hurdle, tending to steal a length each time on his rivals.
Yet it’s not certain that he’s the best of British, because Nicky Henderson unleashed two highly promising young horses over the festive period. First Angels Breath demonstrated an electric turn of foot on soft ground to win easily at Ascot, beating Paul Nicholls’s great hope Danny Kirwan in the process; then Mister Fisher was mightily impressive at Kempton on Boxing Day, beating a field full of hyped horses without having to truly extend himself. A form line through that race via Thomas Darby, also a very talented but headstrong animal, would put him right at the top of the list of contenders. As a result, more evidence is needed before taking a position on this race.
In the market for the Ballymore Novices’ Hurdle, run over two miles five furlongs, there are no such doubts. The JP McManus-owned Champ — named after AP McCoy, no less — is showing every sign of being a future superstar. He demolished the field in a competitive-seeming handicap at Newbury with eye-catching ease, and backed that form up with victory in the Grade One Challow Hurdle at the same course. In that victory he beat all of his major British rivals, finding plenty of speed when asked to assert himself in the final furlong, and is undoubtedly a class act.
The previously static market for the Champion Hurdle — with Buveur d’Air all but crowned for a third successive time — was given an almighty shake-up on Boxing Day when the favourite was beaten by another Henderson horse, the mare Verdana Blue. Buveur d’Air made a major hurdling error, probably the first of his career, at a crucial stage, allowing the mare to stay with him, and then she stunned everyone — including her jockey and trainer — by tapping the champion for toe in the final 100 yards. Just as the racing world was digesting this bombshell, her owners dropped another one, by stating that she is “highly likely” to stick to her previous plan of a campaign on the flat, culminating in a tilt at the Melbourne Cup, instead of lining up in the Champion Hurdle! As such Buveur d’Air’s main British challenger may be yet another from the Henderson yard, Brain Power, re-routed over hurdles after countless chasing disappointments, who beat a classy field in the Grade Two International Hurdle at Cheltenham. But the smart money would still be on Buveur d’Air being crowned again in March: he’s only been beaten once when making an uncharacteristic mistake, and his rivals all have doubts over their target or ability.
For the Arkle, the novice chase run over two miles, the best interpretation of the British form is straightforward: back an Irish horse! The previous favourite, Lalor, was wretched in defeat at Sandown, finishing down the field behind Dynamite Dollars. The latter showed his consistency by then beating the previous second-favourite Kalashnikov in the fog at Kempton. From what could be seen through the gloom, and from trainer Amy Murphy’s comments afterwards, last year’s Supreme second never got into a rhythm under his inexperienced jockey Jack Quinlan. Backing any of the three at this stage would be reckless given their confusing form, and especially so given that both Defi du Seuil and Knocknanuss — both leading contenders for the two-and-a-half-mile JLT Novice Chase — both looked more suited to the Arkle’s test of speed than the JLT’s test of stamina on their last starts.
The market for the RSA Chase, run over three miles, is anything but weak: the leading British contenders keep impressing, and trainers of horses seemingly suited to the JLT seem determined to send their best animals here too. All form lines converged in a thrilling battle at Kempton on Boxing Day, when Warren Greatrex’s mare La Bague Au Roi jumped electrically under a bold ride from Richard Johnson and saw off Nicholls’ scopey stayer Topofthegame and Henderson’s classy Santini. The latter two horses shouldn’t be discounted in March: they will both relish the Cheltenham hill, while La Bague has shown already in her career that she may not. Meanwhile, both Lostintranslation and Vinndication have been mentioned as RSA-bound by their trainers despite imperious performances over two-and-a-half miles; while these two quality horses’ targets are unclear, the picture remains fairly opaque.
The winner of the Gold Cup is equally hard to predict after an astonishing King George at Kempton. Every single horse’s performance surprised or shocked: Bristol de Mai completely tanked after a career-best run last time out; Waiting Patiently was cruelly brought down, after waiting so patiently for this race; Politilogue, a non-stayer, couldn’t hack the pace but did stay; Might Bite looked a shadow of his former self, bottomed out by the epic 2018 Gold Cup; Native River, who beat him to that crown, looked past his best too; Thistlecrack, a suspect jumper, was foot perfect over the fences in finishing second; and the winner, Clan des Obeaux, stayed the best of all after being run off his feet by the same horses at Haydock this season. If anybody claims they can unpick the race, they are a liar. Hopefully the Irish form will offer some answers, if and when any of the major players are sighted on a racecourse.
Happily, the Champion Chase offers no such confusion, and instead all of us can bask in the reflected glory of the best horse in training, the mighty and still-unbeaten Altior. His performance in the mud at Sandown against Un de Sceaux represented jump racing at its absolute finest: he was thrilling, dogged, athletic, and ultimately imperious against a brave rival. If he couldn’t be beaten in those conditions, he won’t be beaten in any conditions, and he’s the festival banker to end all bankers.
At least some parts of the Cheltenham picture are clear with March fast approaching.