They say Christmas is for giving, so racing can hardly be accused of shirking its duties over the festive holiday.
Top of the Yuletide menu was a William Hill King George VI Chase at Kempton that lived up to its pre-race billing, decorated by a thrilling finish and an immensely popular winner in the revitalised CUE CARD. But the feast was supplemented by a range of other treats, not least a ding-dong (merrily on high!) duel the following day between former 2m champions chasers SPRINTER SACRE and SIRE DE GRUGY.
Also at Kempton, Lizzie Kelly made racing history by becoming the first female jockey to win a Grade One race over jumps in the UK when steering home staying novice chaser TEA FOR TWO.
And across the Irish Sea, master trainer Willie Mullins was raising a glass to two of his superstars who unleashed tremendous performances to whet the appetite for the Cheltenham Festival, which is now only ten weeks away. Champion hurdler FAUGHEEN reminded us of his imperious best when bossing the big trial at Kempton for the second year running, while novice chaser DOUVAN was so electric in one of many top-class races at Leoparstown’s four-day Christmas extravaganza that he looks nigh-on unbeatable in the Arkle in March.
For most of the King George, Mullins looked sure to be celebrating another major winner as VAUTOUR led a top-class field a merry dance for most of the second circuit at Kempton, travelling and jumping like a champion.
However, that nagging pre-race doubt about his stamina, in his first try at 3m, proved his downfall when he was collared on the line by Cue Card in a heartstopping finale. It would be wrong to say that Vautour failed to stay, but to surrender a contest that was at his mercy hardly inspired confidence in him conquering 2f further and a stiffer track in the Cheltenham Gold Cup. His Festival hat-trick bid is more likely to revolve around the 2m5f Ryanair Chase now.
In stark contrast, Cue Card, once accused of similar stamina-limitations, marches towards the £1m bonus offered by Jockey Club racecourses for any horse to complete the Betfair Chase/King George/Gold Cup treble. At the fourth attempt, he found Kempton’s Christmas cracker in his stocking to provide yet more success for the wonderfully genuine and down-to-earth West Country yard of Colin Tizzard.
Tizzard is often taken lightly for his ‘country bumpkin’ demeanour. A man born in a caravan on a farm in a tiny Dorset village and who was once vice-captain in a youth cricket team skippered by none other than Ian Botham. But in Cue Card, he has worked wonders to rekindle a flame that has already burned brightly at two Festivals (in the 2010 Bumper and 2013 Ryanair).
Given that he had also twice been thrashed by DON COSSACK in the spring, by 26 lengths at Aintree and by 15 lengths at Punchestown, supporters of the King George favourite had every right to feel aggrieved. Especially as those races came BEFORE Cue card’s celebrated breathing operation, which has been attributed as the reason behind his revival, and especially as he had just headed Tizzard’s nine-year-old when coming down at the second last.
Considering how strongly Don Cossack was staying on at the time, it has to be considered that he may well have won, particularly as Cue Card managed to reel in Vautour despite not meeting the last fence on a proper stride. However, even if he had done so, it certainly wasn’t the performance many were expecting from Gordon Elliott’s charge, who normally travels with classy aplomb but had been under the cosh for a long way. After diving through the top of the last on the first circuit, he lost his pitch and rhythm and never looked comfortable thereafter.
One last thought on the King George, which surely laid to rest the ludicrous assertion, growing in some quarters, that horses should be disqualified if their jockeys break the whip rules. Had this been enforced on Boxing Day, the distant third, AL FEROF, would have won the big race and punters would have let rip with unprecedented uproar, not only at a packed Kempton but also in Christmas party living rooms across the land.
The disqualification advocates say the whip rules wouldn’t be broken if the ultimate deterrent was in place. They also seem to be under the illusion, though, that jockeys aren’t punished for their misdemeanours, yet winning rider Paddy Brennan suffered a hefty ban and fine that will lose him considerable business. Punishing punters, owners and trainers too would be more of an injustice than a deterrent.