For the last few weeks, I've hardly dared to mention the King George VI Chase. The feature event at Kempton on December 26 has been finely poised since Cyrname and Lostintranslation came through their first big tests of the season with flying colours and Clan Des Obeaux made an encouraging return to action at Down Royal a few weeks earlier.
Experience makes one cautious to start building up these races too early, as we all know the fragilities of these animals having seen how often these big clashes fail to come to fruition due to injuries and setbacks. However, whisper it softly, but with just a week left to go the road to what has all the makings of a tremendous King George VI Chase has remained smooth.
Return of the Obeaux
The first one of the big guns to make their return to action this season was last year's King George VI Chase winner Clan Des Obeaux. The seven-year-old showed significant improvement to win last year's renewal of the race and backed it up by defying a Grade 1 penalty to win the Denman Chase at Ascot by 11 lengths in February. After that, he seemed unsuited by the emphasis on stamina in the Gold Cup at the Cheltenham Festival and perhaps wasn't over those exertions there when running a bit below himself at Aintree less than three weeks later.
Clan Des Obeaux's seasonal reappearance at Down Royal attracted mixed reviews, with not everyone being encouraged by his second-place finish to Road To Respect. Personally, I was happy with it. More so than anything else, I thought he was just too fresh for his own good. He took a strong hold and jumped overly exuberantly in the first half of what was a steadily-run race and seemed to pay the price for that on the run in. One can be sure that Paul Nicholls will have been aiming to have him cherry ripe for the King George all season and I'd be expecting him to produce a much better effort around a course and distance that looked to suit him so well last season.
While I expect him to come on significantly for that run, the main question people have to ask themselves is whether the best version of Clan Des Obeaux will be good enough for the task at hand. This year's King George looks to be potentially a much stronger race than the one which saw him beat a 10-year-old Thistlecrack by 1½ lengths last year. A case can be made for him being a rock-solid each-way alternative to the front two in the market, but in terms of him as a potential winner, he isn't at the top of my list.
Can Cyrname prove himself with this trip?
Paul Nicholls' other hope is Cyrname. In the space of three starts, he has been transformed from a 150-rated handicap chaser that looked to have found his level to one of the very best horses in training. Many of those that doubted the solidity of his two remarkable performances at Ascot last season will have had those doubts quashed by what he did to Altior in the Christy 1965 Chase back at Ascot last month. It was a ruthless display of jumping and galloping under a fine ride from Harry Cobden that exposed the chinks in Altior's previously impenetrable armour.
The main question with Cyrname is whether he can carry those twin tools of pinpoint jumping and high cruising speed over the longer trip of three miles. Personally, I feel Cyrname would be a formidable opponent for any horse in a two-mile chase. If he can prove fully effective over three miles, it will be a sight to behold, but I have concerns whether he will be able to do it. It's true that class will carry a horse a long way, but only the very best can overcome sub-optimal circumstances to beat top-class opposition and Cyrname will need to get the trip well to prevail on December 26.
Eureka moment for Lostintranslation?
This brings us to the Colin Tizzard-trained Lostintranslation. While he was a work in progress over shorter trips than ideal for much of his novice chase campaign last season, he gave a strong hint of what might be to come when finally being given his chance over a staying trip in the Mildmay Novices' Chase at Aintree, with him easily seeing off an admittedly flat version of Topofthegame by six lengths.
Following his winning return at Carlisle, his connections pitched him in at the deep end over staying trips against Bristol De Mai at his beloved Haydock in the Betfair Chase.
Despite the difficulty of the task he faced, Lostintranslation produced a tremendous performance, with his neat, clever and efficient jumping getting him into a challenging position sooner than Robbie Power would have liked at the third-last fence. Had he been held onto for longer, I suspect Lostintranslation would have won with much more authority than the 1½ lengths he went on to prevail by.
I can't help but think that what we saw at Haydock might well represent a eureka moment for his connections in terms of knowing how best to ride Lostintranslation. With him having made most of the running in five of his seven starts over fences prior to Haydock, he seemed to be particularly well suited to being ridden with notable patience at Haydock.
Indeed, he shaped as though he will be even better suited by such tactics when the gallop in front of him is stronger than it was at Haydock. Given how unexposed he is under such tactics over staying trips, there must be a chance that there is even more to come from Lostintranslation.
In terms of the concerns for Lostintransation going into the King George, some are sure to point to the uncertainty over the suitability of a right-handed track. While it is a factual fact that 12 of his 14 starts have taken place around left-handed tracks, close examination of his runs at Sandown and Carlisle don't reveal any notable cause for concern to this pair of eyes. Of the 33 fences he jumped in those starts, he was straight at all bar a handful of them. If that counts against him on the 26th, so be it, but the evidence in the book thus far suggests it is unlikely to be a significant factor.
All told, the King George VI Chase is shaping up to be an absolute belter. None of the top three in the market would be a surprise winner, but my pick is Lostintranslation. Being ridden patiently over a well-run three miles promises to bring out the very best in him. He looks the real deal to me, hopefully he can prove in on Boxing Day.