David Cleary spurns the weekend's Flat action, with a recommended bet in jumping's mid-winter championship...
"[Imperial Aura's] form does need to improve a few pounds more, but such was his rate of progress up to Ascot, that he's definitely worth the benefit of any doubt that he's good enough."
With all due respect to the Hungerford Stakes, the Great St Wilfrid and the Grey Horse Handicap, this week's quest for an ante-post wager is focussed on a much more prestigious contest, the King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing day.
The first point to make about the ante-post market for the King George, is the preponderance of Irish-trained horses at the top end of the market - eight of the 14 priced at 20/1 or shorter with Betfair Sportsbook are trained there. That perhaps isn't altogether surprising, given the routing of the home team at the Cheltenham Festival.
Yet Irish stables have sent just one runner to the King George since 2015. And since Kicking King won successive editions of the King George in 2004 and 2005, there have been just eight raiders from across the Irish Sea, only four of those with serious form claims (and none successful, obviously).
The six British-trained runners in the Betfair Sportsbook market at 20/1 or shorter are Clan des Obeaux, Chantry House, Champ, Espoir de Romay, Royale Pagaille and Frodon. At least three of those look well worth being against.
Negatives aplenty with Champ
First with a line through has to be Champ. He may have the ability, but his brief campaign in 2020/21 consisted of a virtual racecourse gallop over two miles and a brief cameo in the Cheltenham Gold Cup where he stopped after a mile having jumped (badly) just six fences. He doesn't seem an obvious Kempton type either.
Royale Pagaille at least completed in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, though his jumping wasn't up to scratch either and he was never closer than his final position of sixth. His best form, in handicaps, is a bit lacking in depth and has come on soft or heavy ground. He was impressive on soft at the King George meeting last winter, but conditions aren't usually that testing for this race.
Frodon got all the breaks in 2020 King George
Just ahead of Royale Pagaille at Cheltenham was the wonderful Frodon. Frodon, of course, won the 2020 King George, though the race couldn't have unfolded more perfectly for him and his rider Bryony Frost than it did.
What looked set to be a fierce battle for the lead, turned into a soft one for Frost and Frodon, ably controlling the tempo, aided by an exhibition round of jumping. Plenty of the others spoilt their chance for one reason or another. The likelihood is that things won't pan out quite so well another time. All things being equal, Frodon ought not to be quite good enough for a second triumph.
Clan des Obeaux looks an obvious player again
One of those to underperform was the dual previous winner Clan des Obeaux. He ran a bit flat, the impression being that he had left his race behind in the Haydock mud, involved in an unsuccessful slog against Bristol de Mai in the Betfair Chase. He revived in the spring, fitted with cheekpieces, landing Grade 1 successes at both Aintree and Punchestown. Those suggested he was at least as good as ever, though neither piece of form is compelling: nothing else ran a race when Clan des Obeaux won the Bowl at Aintree by a wide margin, and only a slightly sloppy Al Boum Photo put up much resistance at Punchestown.
His trainer Paul Nicholls seems unlikely to be tempted by Haydock again, so the real Clan des Obeaux may well turn up at Kempton, but he's priced as short as he should be at this stage.
House and Romay closely matched, need to improve
Chantry House was also a dual Grade 1 winner in the spring, landing novice events at Cheltenham and Aintree. He took advantage of the early departure of Envoi Allen at Cheltenham and the later one of Espoir de Romay at Aintree. The latter race was in the balance when the front-running Espoir de Romay tipped up two out, the outcome had both stood up arguable either way; the form a fair bit removed from what would be required in a King George.
Calvados a fascinating recruit for Nicholls
There are some interesting options among the longer-priced runners in the ante-post market. Two of them ran in last season's King George, the runner-up Waiting Patiently and fourth Saint Calvados. Both could definitely be said not to have been ridden to best advantage. The riders on both stuck to plan A, based on what was expected to be a strongly-run race, and didn't go to plan B when that failed to materialise.
Had Waiting Patiently been moved forward earlier, there's a clear argument to think he might have won. The problem with him is his fragility. He was seen just twice after the King George, below that form over two miles in the Clarence House and one of those that failed to run a race behind Clan des Obeaux at Aintree, eventually pulled up.
Saint Calvados, on the face of it, didn't quite stay at Kempton, but that was essentially because he was fighting his rider for so much of the way; had he settled better or been allowed his head the outcome might well have been a more rewarding one. He ran just once subsequently, unseating rider a mile from home in the Cotswold Chase at Cheltenham.
Saint Calvados has since joining Paul Nicholls' yard, which makes him an interesting option for a big pot at some point. Whether, given the stable already has two previous winners, Clan des Obeaux and Frodon, to be aimed at the King George, Saint Calvados will also be aimed there, is the one drawback in backing him now.
Imperial Aura: ability still not fully revealed
Finally, then, to Imperial Aura. He had a really impressive start over fences, developing into a high-class chaser in just six starts. When he won the Ascot Chase convincingly last November, there was talk of his being supplemented for the King George. That didn't happen. Instead, he made a rare jumping lapse unseating at the second in a Grade 2 at Kempton in January; he then went to the Ryanair, sent off at just 8/1 in a strong field.
The Ryanair was a hard race, run at a very strong gallop, which resulted in over half the field being pulled up. That included Imperial Aura, who reportedly bled. It's not hard to see him bouncing back after a summer's break and his style of racing ought to be made for the King George. His form does need to improve a few pounds more, but such was his rate of progress up to Ascot, that he's definitely worth the benefit of any doubt that he's good enough.
Saint Calvados is certainly tempting at 26.025/1, but with Imperial Aura at a bigger price and with this race a more obvious fit, he gets the nod at 34.033/1 with the Betfair Sportsbook.
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