King George VI Chase 2016: Tony Calvin's early verdict on the Boxing Day special

They look like best of friends off the track, but which of Thistlecrack and Cue Card will emerge triumphant when they meet at Kempton on Boxing Day?
They look like best of friends off the track, but which of Thistlecrack and Cue Card will emerge triumphant when they meet at Kempton on Boxing Day?

The betting for the Boxing Day big one at Kempton suggests a match between Cue Card and Thistlecrack, but is it as simple as that? Tony Calvin takes a close look at the seven-strong field for the 2016 King George VI Chase...

"Cue Card ran to 180+ when beating Coneygree by 15 lengths in the Betfair Chase last time, and that was his eighth Grade 1 victory spanning seven years. He is simply an awesome performer at his best, and the only one to get near a peak-form Sprinter Sacre in his unbeatable pomp, and there don't look to be too many flaws in him."

I was getting all set for a really clever/contrived "seven rides for seven brothers" kind of intro after the King George attracted a septet of entries on Tuesday afternoon - and then I realised that Lizzie Kelly is on Tea For Two.

It is not something that I really should have forgotten given that I put the horse up at 20/1 each-way a couple of weeks ago - read that piece here - and Lizzie attended, and spoke very eloquently at, the King George lunch last week.

The fact that we are now down to two places means the each-way angle recommended a fortnight ago is obviously very attractive, but also redundant for those new to the party. The race now becomes a win-only affair if all seven stand their ground at the final declaration stage on Friday.

Last year's winner Cue Card is the current 2.427/5 favourite and a glance at the Timeform ratings underlines what a monumental task Thistlecrack has if his stablemate runs to form.

Cue Card ran to 180+ when beating Coneygree by 15 lengths in the Betfair Chase last time, and that was his eighth Grade 1 victory spanning seven years.

He is simply an awesome performer at his best, and the only one to get near a peak-form Sprinter Sacre in his unbeatable pomp, and there don't look to be too many flaws in him.

I actually don't think he jumped as well as he could at Haydock last time - and others will point to the fact that three of his last five outings have ended in defeat, which is a fair enough shout when you are backing at 11/8 - but if he runs up to his best then Thistlecrack is going to have to produce one of the best chasing performances of the century to beat him. On only his fourth chase start.

Cue Card is rated 180+ by Timeform and, as far as I can see (and I could easily be wrong), only seven chasers over any distance since 2000 have been given higher end-of-career marks according to the Halifax posse, though others may have initially been awarded loftier ratings before being re-assessed as and when they bowed out. The likes of Master Minded and Imperial Commander spring to mind.

The seven - that magic number again - are Sprinter Sacre (192+), Kauto Star (188+), Moscow Flyer (184+), Don Cossack (183), Well Chief (182), Azertyuiop (182) and Denman (181).

That puts the task that Thistlecrack, a 2.546/4 chance at the time of writing, faces into a very telling context, but he could easily be up to it, that's the scary part.

I'll get slaughtered for this after-time, but I am probably one of the horse's biggest fans having tipped him in these very columns when he won the Grade 1 Sefton novice hurdle at Aintree last year at 25/1.

Well, I am not one of his biggest fans, as I actually was making an early dart home and listened to the commentary in the Aintree car park.

But I have followed his progress with my eyes as well as ears ever since and if any horse can lower the colours of Cue Card on Boxing Day at his best then it is this beast.

Yes, he was "only" rated 174 over hurdles, though never extended admittedly, and has made a couple of worrying mistakes in three uncompetitive wins to date, where his starting prices ranged from 1/6 to 1/8.

But he was electric and foot-perfect at Newbury last time, and Coneygree showed last year how highly a novice can rate when given the chance to strut his stuff in open company after limited experience.

I don't think anyone would doubt the engine that Thistlecrack has, but everything in betting is about the price and I just think there should be a bit more between the pair than the current prices. In Cue Card's favour, that is.


So can anything get near the big two?


Well, for starters, the Tizzard duo have to jump the fences, and that is no given around here, as Don Cossack showed last season, and plenty of others have found out down the years.

And who would have thought the much-maligned Josses Hill would have been lining up as third favourite for a King George after falling in the 2015 Tingle Creek?

His jumping was probably never as bad as some made out - though he certainly was no natural - but he has looked very accomplished this season, and was very impressive when making all to beat Tea For Two in the Peterborough Chase last time.

He was supplemented after fellow pace-setter Coneygree fell by the wayside earlier this week, but the (other) obvious question mark with this dual course winner is the trip. He has never raced over further than an extended 2m4f before. I fancy last season's Feltham winner to gain revenge for the recent Huntingdon defeat.

Dual King George winner Silviniaco Conti went out hunting on Monday to freshen him up for this, but he will need to have bagged about 20lb of improvement on that jaunt around Somerset to be competitive here on the evidence of his two runs last season.

But it will be interesting to see if he tries to steal Josses Hill's thunder and make the running, as he did when winning this race in 2014 with a faultless exhibition of jumping. That could complicate matters.

There were noises yesterday morning that Gigginstown would supplement Outlander for this race but I think the decision to go with Road To Riches - they have also put in Roi Des Francs - could be a shrewd move.

Even though he has twice won over 3m, and finished third in a Gold Cup, he probably possesses more speed than stamina. So this trip could be an issue for him here, as could the class angle.

But he can probably be rated a bit better than his third to Vautour in the Ryanair last season, as he was the only one who tried to put it up to the winner, and he is another who is a potential pace angle, too.

We haven't seen him since his below-par second to Ballycasey in October (apparently he has since undergone an operation after suffering from "kissing spines" - no, me neither), but he has a history of going well when fresh, and 3m on a right-handed track could just see him be a player here, and he could he one to consider in betting without the front two.

But apparently he is only 50-50 to go to Kempton, so more of this race later in the week when we get the final declarations on Friday.


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