Five Key Questions ahead of the festive period

Clan Des Obeaux is aiming to win the King George for the second year running.
Clan Des Obeaux is aiming to win the King George for the second year running.

We're set for a stunning few days of racing over the Christmas period, and after producing several winning pointers over the weekend, Alex Stearn has picked out the five biggest talking points - with a couple more pointers to boot...

Cyrname or Clan Des Obeaux? ... or neither?

The build-up around the King George over the last couple of weeks very much got us all purring at the prospect of a race to remember for years to come, and the final field looks like being a select six of the highest quality. However, there might be one man amongst us that doesn’t feel the same given the choice he has had to make. Since the 23rd November, Harry Cobden must have lost countless hours of sleep over one of the most difficult choices he will have to make in his career – whether to ride Cyrname or Clan Des Obeaux.

Starting with Cyrname, his claims were made much more obvious after breaking the unbeaten record of Altior over fences in the 1965 Chase at Ascot. He spent most of his career before that success with the reputation as a bit of a tearaway over obstacles, but he's been a much calmer character since 2019 began, proven by his seasonal reappearance. Connections think he’ll be just as effective around Kempton as he is around his beloved Ascot, and the trip shouldn’t be an issue given how strongly he hit the line last month. However, whether he really is a King George horse is yet to be seen considering Altior now drops in trip, possibly hinting that connections didn’t feel he stayed the trip well enough. 

The other Nicholls stablemate, Clan Des Obeaux, is defending champion having won the contest last year.  He really came of age in his previous campaign when backing up his King George performance with a win in the Denman Chase, a fifth-placed finish in the Gold Cup and a second in the Bowl at Aintree. His seasonal reappearance didn’t live up to his price in the market, but it came at the time where his handler's horses were needing the run, so better can be expected here at a track he obviously enjoys.

However, the choice that Harry faced may well only be good enough for second place. Lostintranslation hails from a yard awash with quality staying chasers, and he may well turn out to be the best of the bunch for Colin Tizzard. Last season saw him have an excellent set of battles with Defi Du Seuil, and after being tapped for toe in a remarkably strong JLT, he stepped up the 3-mile trip with aplomb when running out an excellent winner of the Mildmay Novices' Chase at Aintree. He accounted for Haydock specialist Bristol De Mai in the Betfair Chase to put him in the hunt for the £1 million bonus last month, and has an excellent chance of bringing up the second leg of that famous treble, leaving Harry Cobden to settle for second best.

Will we get Champion Hurdle clarity at Kempton? 

Without the presence of a star, the Champion Hurdle picture is extremely foggy, with the ante-post favourites all having let the market down in some way or another. However, the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton could lead the way for a star to be born, with Fusil Raffles bidding to follow up his Elite Hurdle win. 

He arrived at Seven Barrows from France at the end of 2018, and made a positive impression when bolting up over the course and distance he faces on Boxing Day in the Adonis Hurdle back in February. That performance came at a price, though, with him sustaining a cut to his left-hind leg, which subsequently ruled him out of Cheltenham and Aintree. However, he wasted no time in getting back on track, making the journey across the Irish Sea for Punchestown’s festival and claiming the scalp of Fakir D’Oudaries at Grade 1 level. 

Nicky Henderson aimed Simon Munir and Isaac Souede’s colt at Wincanton earlier this season, where he was expected to go and canter round with minimum of fuss. However, Grand Sancy made sure he had to work, and Henderson has come out since to have said he was only prepared to just be fit enough to do himself justice and has come on a bundle ever since. He will need to step forward, but that is more than certain to happen and given how lightly raced he is, he should take plenty of beating here with an impressive performance likely to catapult him to the top of tree of Champion Hurdlers. 

Christmas Hurdle
Fusil Raffles silk

Fusil Raffles

Pulled Up

Heavy going at Chepstow, you say?

It would be nothing short of a Christmas miracle if the Welsh National wasn’t run on heavy ground for once, and despite the forecast only offering showers between now and Friday, the going is already testing, promising a thorough slog.

With the scratching of Native River on Saturday, several connections felt that the 7 lb increase in weight because of that would have put an end to their chance. It shook up the market, with a lot of horses having their price trimmed as you would expect, but it was still a Colin Tizzard-trained horse that headed the market in the form of Elegant Escape. He is bidding to retain his crown, but must do so despite now running off a 9 lb higher mark. He was gaining all the way to the line when finishing third in the Ladbrokes Trophy last month, shaping as if that would have left him spot on for this. Another contender is Now McGinty, who has been a talking horse since making Santini pull out all the stops at Sandown in early November, whilst offering hope that marathon trips will see him improve further. 

Paul Nicholls hasn’t won this contest since 2005 and is double-handed here, with two horses at differing ends of their careers. Truckers Lodge now sneaks in the bottom of the weights, and with Lorcan Williams booked to take off an extra 3 lb, he will only have 10-02 on his back. He was last seen winning over course and distance, and his handler has long thought he is the type to thrive in these races. Paul Nicholls also has the mud-loving Yala Enki entered, who will strip fitter for his midfield finish in the Ladbrokes Trophy and is guaranteed to relish conditions. 

At bigger prices, Big River will make the long journey down from Scotland for his effort and is a proven type over these distances. His previous effort in the Scottish Borders National was cut short as he was brought down whilst travelling sweetly, and he could hit the frame here, while Captain Chaos will have to run wrong at the weights, but his latest effort was eye-catching given he was outpaced over 3 miles before rallying to finish second and is worth a go at the longer trip. However, they might all struggle to land a blow on Nicholls’ young pretender, Truckers Lodge, who looks to have strong claims with a featherweight on his back.

Chepstow also host Grade 1 action on that afternoon, with Triumph Hurdle contenders taking their chance in the Finale Juvenile Hurdle, including an interesting Irish raider in the form of the Joseph O’Brien-trained Cerberus, who impressed when winning a Grade 3 at Fairyhouse at the beginning of the month. He only had to be pushed clear to win by two-and-a-half lengths on that occasion, and warrants his place up in grade. However, he might not have it all his own way, with Allmankind set to line up after his demolition job at Cheltenham and should prove tough to beat. 

Welsh Grand National
Truckers Lodge silk

Truckers Lodge

placed

Who can post the best performance? 

A buffet of high-class novice chases take place over the Christmas period, and the four graded contests over Thursday and Friday promises to have some star names featuring prominently. 

Kempton kicks off the action over three miles, with Master Tommytucker having the strongest claims of a very good field, considering he’s the choice of Harry Cobden over the unbeaten Danny Whizzbang. He is an extremely lightly-raced eight-year-old, and only tasted defeat when his jumping let him down at Chepstow at the start of 2018. He made his belated seasonal reappearance at Kempton a month ago, and had to pull out all the stops to get the better of Who Dares Wins, but that was only at two-and-a-quarter miles, whereas the 3-mile trip will prove to be right up his street and he can take his record to four wins from five starts.

Over in Ireland, Leopardstown and Limerick host two phenomenal battles. Leopardstown will see Fakir D’Oudairies take on Laurina in their Grade 1 contest over two miles and a furlong. Both drop back in trip from their latest starts, which looks set to suit Joseph O’Brien’s charge. His best hurdle form was around the minimum trip, and whilst he was successful last time out, that did come with a large slice of luck after Samcro fell when making his challenge. Laurina is arguably the best mare in training, but given how she ran when she last dropped to the minimum trip in the Champion Hurdle, she could be vulnerable to a speedier type with her mares’ allowance wiped out due to Fakir D’Oudairies only being four. 

The previously mentioned Samcro takes on the evergreen Faugheen over two-and-a-half miles at Limerick, where he looks to gain compensation having come down last time. He’s since reportedly schooled and worked well after that fall, so if his confidence is still intact, he should have too much for ‘The Machine’. Nothing shall be taken away from Faugheen in defeat, however, with him doing remarkably well to win on chase debut after a shuddering mistake - but he looks to be vulnerable to younger legs here. 

Completing the set is the Wayward Lad Novices’ Chase at Kempton, with French recruit Fanion D’Estruval bidding to step out of handicap company for the red-hot Venetia Williams. He went relatively under the radar on his British debut at Newbury last month, when he made a mockery of his opening mark of 137, and the handicapper has put him up 12 lb since. There was a slight twinkle in Venetia Williams’ eye when the Arkle was mentioned after his Newbury performance, so the step up to Grade 2 company could be well within his reach. 

Will it be the return of the chosen one? 

It’s rare for a horse to have such a hype after just two starts on Irish soil, but the vibes coming out of Willie Mullins’ Closutton base is that Chacun Pour Soi might just be the second coming.

Having arrived from France at the age of four, it took over 1000 days for him to hit the track for his new connections, but it was well worth the wait. Admittedly, he was found a below-average beginners chase, but his performance was anything but, bouncing out in-front and not seeing another horse before skipping a remarkable 31 lengths clear with the minimum of fuss. 

That performance warranted him a place in Grade 1 company at Punchestown, where again he was electric when accounting for the challenge of Defi Du Seuil. He hasn’t been the most straightforward to train since his arrival from France, but the issues that kept him off the track have hopefully been corrected, and we can look forward to a remarkable performance at Leopardstown on Friday, where the rest of the field look to be there just to make up the numbers. A Plus Tard and Hardline will probably find this trip on the sharp side if lining up, and it may be best left to a stablemate of Chacun Pour Soi’s to fill second spot, notably Un De Sceaux if taking his chance after his gallant Tingle Creek performance. A victory here will get out pulses racing with a possible clash between Chacun Pour Soi, Defi Du Seuil, and quite possibly Altior, at Cheltenham in March. 

Richard Johnson's Bookings
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