Timeform's Tony McFadden previews the racing highlight of the festive period, the King George VI Chase, and expects a close-fought contest...
"Stamina-sapping conditions allied with a searching pace ensured that the race became a real test but it was one that Al Ferof passed in no uncertain terms, giving Walkon, a former high-class hurdler with a proven record fresh, 16 lb and a three-length beating..."
It is hard to deny that the cream has risen to the top in the King George in recent years; genuine Grade 1 performers have monopolised the roll of honour. Last year's renewal, run in unusually attritional conditions, may have been sub-standard but it looks like a stronger affair this time around with Cue Card deservedly heading the market following his victory in the Betfair Chase.
It had seemed that Cue Card was found wanting for stamina in last year's King George, but he proved at Haydock that he stays three miles well, delivering an impeccable round of jumping from the front and keeping on strongly to see off the challenges of Dynaste and Silviniaco Conti. Cue Card's stamina is no longer in doubt - an early mistake combined with change of tactics were probably to blame for last year's tame effort - and, with this knowledge, it wouldn't be a surprise were Tizzard to employ even more aggressive tactics, trying to use his mount's fluent fencing and speed to take his slower rivals out of their comfort zone.
It is difficult to see the negatives with Cue Card. He is a consistent, likeable type that is fully effective over a range of distances and comes into this contest on the back of his best effort yet. It has been suggested in some quarters that he may not be as effective going right-handed, an argument principally based on last year's King George disappointment. He did, however, put up a massive performance to win the Haldon Gold Cup last season, decimating his rivals from a BHA mark of 157, and while Exeter is more galloping in nature, Kempton should actually suit his attacking style.
Having shown top-class form between two miles and three miles, it is impossible to envisage any of Cue Card's rivals being able to beat him by serving it up from the outset, attempting to match him stride-for-stride: there isn't a horse good enough. What is easier to imagine, though, is another rider, hell-bent on preventing the best horse in the race securing an easy lead, inadvertently compromising the chances of their own mount by going a stride too fast, leaving Cue Card slightly vulnerable to a patiently-ridden rival in the finish. Al Ferof, who arguably benefited from a none-too-dissimilar scenario in the Supreme Novices' Hurdle when Cue Card and Sprinter Sacre pressed on down the hill, looks best placed to deliver a telling late challenge.
Al Ferof may have won the hottest renewal of the Supreme Novices' Hurdle in recent memory and defied a handicap mark of 159 to win the Paddy Power Gold Cup, yet there remains a feeling that we still haven't seen the best of Paul Nicholls' charge. An untimely injury a couple of weeks prior to last season's King George ruled the top-class performer out for the rest of the campaign, but he looks to have retained all of his enthusiasm based on an authoritative success in the Amlin Chase last month. Clearly, the King George will be a great deal more competitive than the two-runner race Al Ferof won at Ascot, but it was encouraging to see him attacking his fences, often producing prodigious leaps, and it should have left him in tip-top shape for the King George.
Al Ferof will need to raise his game to another level at Kempton if he is to topple formidable rivals such as Cue Card and Dynaste, but there is good reason to expect that he is capable of doing so. Relatively lightly raced for an eight-year-old, Al Ferof has yet to compete over three miles but, while this would be a concern for most horses, he ought to improve for the increased emphasis on stamina.
By super sire Dom Alco (father of renowned stayers such as Neptune Collonges and Silviniaco Conti) and out of a French mare, Maralta, that proved successful over 15 furlongs on the Flat, there is plenty of stamina in Al Ferof's pedigree, and the way he galloped on relentlessly to win an attritional renewal of the Paddy Power Gold Cup suggests that he will relish three miles.
The 2012 Paddy Power Gold Cup - run over an extended two and a half miles - took place on ground described by Timeform as heavy. Stamina-sapping conditions allied with a searching pace ensured that the race became a real test - only six of the 18 competitors completed the course - but it was one that Al Ferof passed in no uncertain terms, giving Walkon, a former high-class hurdler with a proven record fresh, 16 lb and a three-length beating, the pair well clear of the remainder.
Al Ferof jumped strikingly well at Cheltenham, always travelling powerfully on the heels of the leaders, and his sound jumping allied with high cruising speed should prove to be a potent weapon around Kempton.
Dynaste was the pick of last season's staying novices and he made an instant impression in open company, splitting Cue Card and Silviniaco Conti in the Betfair Chase. That represented much-improved form but there was no hint of a fluke about the performance: Dynaste jumped well, travelled strongly but simply found Cue Card too strong in the closing stages. The return to Kempton, where he was so impressive in the Feltham last year, ought to suit, as should the sharper track, but he has a bit of work to do to reverse the form and makes no great appeal at current odds. Similar comments apply to Silviniaco Conti. He is a top-class chaser and has proven to be admirably consistent but he had no excuses at Haydock and the slightly sharper test that can be expected at Kempton is likely to play into the hands of his rivals. The fact Silvinaco Conti also has the Lexus Chase as an alternative engagement makes him an unappealing ante-post proposition at present.
There have been cases made for outsiders such as Mount Benbulben and two-time winner Long Run but, in truth, they both have questions to answer against top-notch, in-form rivals. Mount Benbulben is undoubtedly talented - his 22-length win at Punchestown proves as much - and looks suited by racing right-handed, but his jumping is a serious cause for concern, particularly with an unrelenting gallop on the cards. Long Run has a terrific record in the King George - two wins and a second - and he showed a tremendous attitude to prevail last year, but he will need to show a greater level of form in a stronger renewal this time which may be problematic for a horse that appears to be on the downgrade.
It could be worth keeping things simple when assessing this year's King George. Cue Card is Timeform's second highest-rated horse in training, inferior only to the truly exceptional Sprinter Sacre; he is a worthy favourite. Al Ferof hasn't quite hit the same heights but that could be down to opportunity rather than ability. Free of injury and faced with three miles for the first time, Al Ferof is expected to take a significant step forward and launch a stern challenge. At twice the odds of Cue Card he offers the value.
Back Al Ferof in the King George VI Chase