Tony Calvin says Paul Nicholls holds the two aces for the King George at Kempton on Boxing Day even though Santini has entered the betting...
"Clan Des Obeaux beat Cyrname 21 lengths in this race last season, and his backers will be hoping his Betfair Chase second teed him up nicely for this. He certainly shaped very well there, trading at 1.222/9 in the run, but you never know how much a big run like that in bad ground took out of him."
Paul Nicholls' grip on the King George trophy - the ante-post betting on the Exchange suggested he was about a 1/2 chance to lift it - was loosened a fair bit on Monday morning when Santini was supplemented for the Kempton race on Boxing Day.
Plenty like to sneer at Santini even though he's rated 172 and one of the best horses in the country. The reason is that he doesn't do anything quickly and many think he could do with a pair of blinkers to replace the cheekpieces, but one of the charms of racing is that you can get from A to B any which way you like, and he is quicker than most over 3m over fences.
Santini a better chance than his odds suggest
It is a touch surprising that he has been supplemented here as all his best form has come on left-handed tracks and he was a touch underwhelming when third in the Kauto Star over track and trip in 2018 - connections have conceded this isn't his ideal course - a race in which he was never really in the hunt and was never closer than at the line.
But that was two years ago on good to soft ground, and he has since gone to establish himself as one of the best staying chasers around with his head second to Al Boum Photo in the Gold Cup - he had Lostintranslation (3rd), Monalee (4th), Real Steel (6th) and Clan Des Obeaux (8th) behind him there - and he was entitled to need his comeback at Aintree, where nine of the 19 fences were omitted due to the low sun.
Yes, it was disappointing he couldn't beat a horse rated 12lb inferior at the weights, but he will get his favoured deep ground here if the forecast is correct - I imagine that was the clincher for Nicky Henderson to put him in the race, though others may point to him juggling his pack with Champ due out next month and maybe the trainers' title belatedly coming into consideration.
And there are some brave layers out there, as his Exchange price of 8.415/2 doesn't tally with his form claims.
I do get the opposition to a degree, though, as this was clearly an afterthought by the trainer on a lazy Sunday afternoon.
Clan Des Obeaux is strongest of Nicholls' big two
Talking about the going, it is currently good to soft (good in places) but I am working on the basis of soft ground, as Wednesday in particular could be brutal. One site is even predicting 29mm of rain on that day, but others far less.
Nicholls holds two aces with Clan Des Obeaux and Cyrname though, and a couple of dangerous wild cards with Frodon and Real Steel.
I like Clan Des Obeaux best of his big two.
He beat Cyrname 21 lengths in this race last season, and his backers will be hoping his Betfair Chase second teed him up nicely for this. He certainly shaped very well there, trading at 1.222/9 in the run, but you never know how much a big run like that in bad ground took out of him.
But, that doubt aside - and he did disappoint over the longer trip of the Gold Cup too, I suppose - he has a slightly more likeable profile than stablemate Cyrname.
That horse is officially rated 5lb superior to Clan Des Obeaux and appeared to have less of a lung-burster than when easing home ahead of Vinndication in the Charlie Hall under a 6lb penalty on his reappearance.
In terms of talent, I would go along with the fact that he is the best horse in the race - that defeat of Altior is all too easily forgotten - but the crucial question punters have to answer with him is, was Wetherby definitive proof that he will stay 3m in soft ground when stepping up another class level here?
The truthful answer is I don't know - that race could have been a sterner test of stamina on just his second start over 3m - and of course the run in this race last year instils the doubts, especially when you are asked to back him at 2.942/1.
Real Steel has outsider appeal
You would have liked to see a bit more from him on his stable debut at Ascot but he was giving weight all round there under a penalty on his first run since the Gold Cup, and he got tired late on.
Maybe he needed it badly there - he went off at 4.84/1 at Betfair SP, as opposed to his industry price of 3/1 - and I struggle to get the image out my head of him tanking coming into the straight at Cheltenham last March.
He went off at 50/1 that day but hit a low of 3.55 when looking the most likely winner coming to the last, only to empty out on the run-in and be beaten over seven lengths.
That suggests 3m around here should be ideal and he has plenty of pace and right-handed form too, as he showed when fourth to Min in the John Durkan and when beating Footpad over 2m4f at Thurles, and I can see this test suiting him.
We all know how difficult it is to improve one from Willie Mullins, or even keep the horse at a similar level, but I certainly wouldn't be laying him at his current Exchange price of 21.020/1.
Hold fire on Monalee
There are not that many that you can put a convincing line through in this 10-strong field, though not many would argue that Black Op is the correct outsider, for all he is a Grade 1 winner.
Even allowing for the omitted fences at Aintree, Frodon was very disappointing at Aintree last time, Saint Calvados has big stamina questions to answer, as does Waiting Patiently to a slightly lesser extent.
That leaves two I haven't mentioned, Monalee and Lostintranslation.
The former is very weak on the Exchange (he has hit 20.019/1 on Monday) after the travel restrictions were imposed in Ireland on Sunday night - we are yet to see how this will affect horses coming over, but the Irish Government has advised against non-essential travel, and that was obviously not positive news for his backers - and I would be very much inclined to hold fire with him for the time being. He also has the option of the Savills at Leopardstown on December 28.
Lostinstranslation is the fourth favourite at 10.519/2 but that is not overly-tempting.
Yes, he has the ability to take a big hand - last year's Betfair Chase win and his Gold Cup third tell us that - but he blew out big-style at Haydock last month and in this race last year, and the form of his stable is similarly patchy.
I can't get too excited by him, even at 9/1.
Keep an eye on the markets, weather and news
In summary, Clan Des Obeaux is the right favourite and Real Steel is the most tempting outsider at 16/1 each way, three places, in a race that may just cut up to less than eight runners.
I deliberated long and hard about sticking up Real Steel each way, but I am going to keep my money in my account for now.
There is a narrow ante-post window this week, as Boxing Day runners are out on Wednesday morning, but I could be back with another column if I see any ante-post bets.
I'll be back before Christmas either way though with a Boxing Day preview, so I will hold off on the Merry Yuletide lines until then.
I also want to wait until hearing what Boris Johnson has in store for us on Monday night, anyway. 2020 could be about to get even grimmer, and racing seems more of an irrelevance, with each passing daily death toll.