Carols, mince pies, too much eating and drinking, the Queen’s speech and the King George are traditional parts of Christmas for racing fans. Paul Nicholls spends Christmas Day wishing it was over as Boxing Day is one of the favourite days in the racing year. Kauto Star won the race five times and in Silviniaco Conti and Al Ferof he has two of the three shortest priced horses in the betting.
Nicholls’s horses are split by Champagne Fever, trained by Willie Mullins and ridden by Ruby Walsh. The horse has won two different races at the Cheltenham Festival but is unproven over the three mile trip of the King George. Kempton is a left handed flat track in contrast to Cheltenham and staying the trip on Boxing Day is a different proposition to staying over two furlongs further up the hill at Cheltenham in March.
Cue Card looked the likely winner jumping the second last a year ago but was outstayed by Silviniaco Conti. The horse has form with Dynaste who is suited to the race conditions and could outrun his price. Johns Spirit is an outsider but a progressive horse that could have been a grade horse when running in handicaps. Wishful Thinking and Menorah represent the Philip Hobbs yard that is in fine form.
At the relative odds and form my tip to win the King George is Al Ferof, trading at 6/1 three days ahead of the race. With a maximum field of 10 runners paying three places if eight run the selection looks a bet to nothing. Mishaps can happen over jumps but Al Ferof has fallen just once in 20 starts and being brought down is a long shot, though it does happen. Jockey error in taking the wrong course is even more of an unlikely occurrence.
Al Ferof has won 10 of his races which means he has a 50% strike rate often competing at the highest level in grade 1 races over hurdles and fences. The horse is owned by John Hales who also owned One Man, a two times winner of the King George. The owner believes the horse can prove himself on Boxing Day and then become a leading contender for the Cheltenham Gold Cup which One Man never won.
Al Ferof was third in last year’s King George, 15 lengths behind Silviniaco Conti. However he lost no ground from the final fence to the finishing line so was staying on just as well as the winner in the final furlong. It transpired that the horse was suffering with stomach ulcers during the race and better ground at Kempton means Hales is optimistic he can win another King George. On hurdles form Al Ferof is the highest rated horse in the race.
The selection won the Amlin Chase at Ascot for a second time in his last race. He had problems last year but was an impressive winner of the Paddy Power Gold Cup in 2012 and that form stacks up well. Al Ferof won the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle over two mile so has speed. Ahead of the Ascot race he was only in training for eight weeks so he can be expected to improve for that run. On past form he was too far back last year but on good to soft ground can get in the mix this time.
The forecast for Kempton is mainly dry and conditions will not ride as testing as a year ago and that should help Al Ferof. The race will be more about speed than stamina and that scenario brings Al Ferof into the equation. After being treated for ulcers the horse also had a back problem but the trainer reports that Al Ferof is healthy and in fine form at home. Nicholls will be trying to win the King George for the ninth time.
Silviniaco Conti could do the job for Nicholls as well and has a favourite’s chance to win the race for a second time. He won the Betfair Chase at Haydock in November after a disappointing run in his seasonal reappearance at Wetherby. The Betfair is the third most prestigious staying chase of the season that is not a handicap. It is seen as a stepping to the Gold Cup and Cue Card became favourite for that race in 2013 after winning at Haydock but could not run.
Silviniaco Conti jumped the last fence in the Gold Cup in front but swerved on the run-in and finished fourth behind Lord Windermere. He got his career back on track by winning at Aintree the following month. He deserves a Gold Cup as he was also travelling as well as the winner in 2013 when falling in the closing stages. However, he is unproven up the hill and Kempton could be a more suitable track, though the ground has slightly gone against him.
Wishful Thinking and Menorah have something to find on form. Neither will be ridden by Richard Johnson who is serving a ban for missing a fence with a horse. The second best jockey in jumps racing made an unprofessional mistake and he will be rueing missing key races over Christmas. If either of the Hobbs horses wins the King George Johnson will have a potential Gold Cup winning ride in his diary next for March.
Johns Spirit has run six of his last seven races at Cheltenham and that spell includes winning the 2013 Paddy Power and finishing second in this year’s race. Connections bypassed the December Handicap Chase at the horse’s favourite track to pitch him in against grade 1 horses in the King George. The horse is proven over three miles and can stay. He will have condition in his favour at Kempton and could run in to a place at a big price.
One of the negatives is the form of his trainer Johno O’Neill who is having a tough winter and autumn. The stable has sent out 30 horses in December but is yet to win a race this month. Winning the King George would give the business a welcome boost but the Nicholls’s horses look too good so Johns Spirit will be running for third place.