The admirable decision by owners John and Heather Snook to run their novice Thistlecrack in the King George VI Chase - rather than the more traditional Kauto Star Novices' Chase (Feltham) - should be applauded. This is not tilting at windmills with a horse out of his depth, but the opportunity for horse racing fans to receive a timely boost after last month's loss of Vautour by watching last season's World Hurdle winner take on last year's King George winner. The fact that both are from the same Colin Tizzard stable adds a great twist to the story, however, from a punting point of view, all it has done has muddied the waters.
This race looked Cue Card's to lose following the defection of Coneygree last week. Cue Card has won 15 of his 33 starts, eight of them at the top level, including this race 12 months ago. His memorable bid for a £1m bonus put up for winning the Betfair Chase at Haydock, this race and the Cheltenham Gold Cup agonisingly came to grief with a slithering fall three out on the final leg last March, where his jockey Paddy Brennan shouldered plenty of blame. However, the partnership showed no ill effects when easily winning the Bowl Chase at Aintree the following month, by nine lengths from Don Poli, and he then possibly found the race coming too soon when only fourth to Carlingford Lough in the Punchestown Gold Cup 20 days later. He predictably improved for his reappearance third in the Charlie Hall at Wetherby (jockey went for home too early, as per instructions, apparently) when winning the latest renewal of the Betfair Chase last month, answering the doubters by bouncing back to his very best with a 15-length defeat of Coneygree. This race looked Cue Card's to lose. And then Thistlecrack came along.
Having developed into the leading staying hurdler in 2015/16, successful five times, Thistlecrack was most impressive when beating Alpha des Obeaux by seven lengths in the World Hurdle at Cheltenham in March. He then followed up, making the most of a good opportunity, when completing the five-timer with loads to spare in the Grade 1 Liverpool Hurdle at Aintree in April, again proving adaptable in regards to tactics (made the running). Connections made the bold call to go novice chasing this season and have been rewarded with three victories, almost foot-perfect on his first step on the path to the Gold Cup when winning at Chepstow in October. His jumping was over-bold if anything on his next start at Cheltenham a month later, but showed little of the over-exuberance which had caused moments of concern there when easily winning the Grade 2 Worcester Novices' Chase at Newbury last month. He was the best of these over hurdles, but will he be the best over fences? Is this an afterthought? Not according to connections, as John Snook said: "It's definitely the King George for Thistlecrack - it's always been my intention to go that way provided the horse has been coping with jumping fences and we think he has."
Both horses are around 11/8. Seven horses are entered, ensuring that an each-way bet is arguably poor value, however there are five other potential rivals for these two superstars to beat and each should be treated with respect. The two outsiders are Road to Riches and Roi des Francs, both of whom have alternative entries in Ireland this Christmas. Road to Riches won the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown and was third in both the Cheltenham Gold Cup and Punchestown Gold Cup, all in 2014/15, and he ran as well as ever when third in the Ryanair Chase at Cheltenham last March (swerved a second attempt at the Cheltenham Gold Cup, seemingly with a difference of opinion between trainer and owner over which race would suit him best). He was pulled up in the Galway Plate in the summer but was better than the result when 11 lengths second to Ballycasey in PWC Champion Chase (Grade 2) at Gowran last time, finishing with running left having been set plenty to do. Roi des Francs got back to form with a three lengths third to Champagne Fever in a listed event at Thurles last month. He has lots to find here but is still relatively lightly-raced over fences so may do better yet.
Silviniaco Conti made all in this race in both 2013 and 2014, though was pulled up in the latest renewal after travelling well for a circuit. He bounced back to form straight away in first-time blinkers when winning the Betfair Ascot Chase (by 20 lengths from Dynaste) two months later, but didn't give backers much of a run for their money when making a bad mistake at the 11th and then being pulled up at the 14th in the Grand National at Aintree last April. He showed he is no back number after seven months off when 11 lengths second to the Lexus favourite Valseur Lido in the JNwine.com Champion Chase at Down Royal but took a backwards step when a well-beaten fourth to Cue Card in the Betfair Chase. He has become too unpredictable to recommend, and may only serve to hamper the chance of Josses Hill. Nicky Henderson's charge had some teething problems with the bigger obstacles last season but won a graduation chase at Kempton (in a match, by eight lengths from Camping Ground) on his reappearance in November, with a no-nonsense ride from the front showing him in a better light, and impressed again with his jumping when following up in five-runner Peterborough Chase at Huntingdon last time by six lengths from Tea For Two, well on top at the finish. His course record reads 2-2-1-1 but Silviniaco Conti (and possibly Thistlecrack) could provide too much pressure up-front over this half-mile longer trip.
Tea For Two completes the septet. The 2015 Lanzarote Hurdle winner scored on his first two starts over fences last season, in a novices' chase at Exeter and then the Grade 1 Kauto Star Novices' Chase at this meeting (had Native River back in third). He couldn't cope with the emphasis on speed when seven lengths third, dropped back in trip, in the Scilly Isles on his next start and he then missed the rest of the season due to injury. Tea For Two ran creditably after nine months off, though as on his return last season he shaped as if the race would put him spot on, when fifth in a Grade 3 handicap chase at Ascot in October and improved again when a six-length second to Josses Hill in the Peterborough Chase at Huntingdon earlier this month. The return to three miles here will suit and he has been targeted at this race for a long time, so it would be no great surprise to see further progress.
To conclude, the £1m bonus that the Jockey Club Racecourses puts up for any horse that wins the Betfair Chase, this race and the Cheltenham Gold Cup, is often cited, however you don't necessarily get the impression that it is something that has influenced Cue Card's campaigns over the years. Give him a flat track and a good pace, and he is very hard to beat, regardless of ground conditions. Cue Card's longevity sets him apart from the current crop of top staying chasers and, Kauto Star aside, he can't be matched by any other top-class National Hunt horse of the modern era. But this is a new era, one led by the hitherto unstretched Thistlecrack. Cue Card tops the ratings, but the (arguably) tactically more versatile Thistlecrack has the potential to improve further. As a result, it's a race to watch and savour, rather than toss a coin for the winner.