Horseracing is as synonymous with Boxing Day as cold Turkey leftovers, hangovers and sales promising 75% off all the stuff you didn’t need before Christmas and definitely don’t need after Christmas.
Normally we’d have fixtures at four Jockey Club racecourses on December 26th - but because there’s nothing ‘normal’ about 2020 we’re doing things a little differently. Kempton Park and Wincanton both stage fixtures on Boxing Day but we moved our Huntingdon raceday to Tuesday of this week and our Market Rasen highlight, which couldn’t have spectators present, now takes place on December 30th.
Moving those fixtures will help generate more betting-related revenue for the sport, but there is still plenty of action to get excited about, including the two-day Ladbrokes Christmas Festival at Kempton Park on the 26th and 27th and a cracking card at Wincanton on Boxing Day.
Let’s not waste any time and let’s start looking at five things you need to know before the racing begins ….
CYRNAME AND CLAN DES OBEAUX PROMISE A CHRISTMAS CRACKER
It doesn’t matter if you’re a racing fanatic, casual observer or just someone who likes a bit of sport to liven up Boxing Day – the Ladbrokes King George VI Chase is a must-watch at 3pm.
No trainer currently sending horses out has a record in this race quite like Paul Nicholls and having saddled 11 of the last 23 winners it won’t surprise anyone that he holds all the aces this year.
As it stands the Ditcheat master has four of the 10 runners, including reining champion Clan Des Obeaux, who bids to win a third consecutive King George.
Part-owned by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson, the horse known simply as ‘Clan’ to Nicholls and his team won with Harry Cobden on board in 2018 and Sam Twiston-Davies in the saddle 12 months ago. The latter takes the ride here and will be bullish about his chances after a second place in the Betfair Chase in heavy ground last month.
Cobden, meanwhile, will partner the other joint-favourite, Cyrname. His victory at Wetherby was impressive enough to suggest that we needn’t worry about his fall at Ascot in February, or his failure to win this race in 2019.
Let’s not forget that on his day on his tracks (and Kempton, as a right-handed course, would be among them) he has looked imperious at times and he remains the only horse to have ever beaten the mighty Altior – more on him shortly.
Of the others there are household names aplenty, including Nicholls’ other pair in Frodon and Real Steel, while the Cheltenham Gold Cup runner-up, Santini, and third-placed Lostintranslation will also line up.
Saint Calvados for Harry Whittington, Waiting Patiently for Ruth Jefferson and Tom George’s Black Op seem to make up the rest, given that Ireland’s sole flag bearer in Monalee is now assumed to be ruled out due to COVID travel restrictions.
Either way it promises to be a thriller, so have your Boxing Day lunch finished in good time.
GOSHEN HOPES TO TURN TEARS TO CHEERS FOR THE MOORES
By the time the King George is under way we’ll have only just had time to get our collective breath back from the Ladbrokes Christmas Hurdle.
Previous winners include Buveur D’Air, Yanworth, Faugheen, My Tent Or Yours, Binocular and Harchibald so the bar is set extremely high. And this year’s line-up is as exciting as for any previous renewal.
This year’s Champion Hurdle winner at The Festival was the impressive Epatante, a mare who has realistic ambitions of backing that success up in March 2021 for trainer Nicky Henderson.
She will likely go off a big odds-on favourite here, despite some top notch competition like Sceau Royal, Silver Streak and Ballyandy.
Of her rivals, though, it is Goshen who remains the eye-catcher and not just because of that incident at the last at Cheltenham in March when clear in the JCB Triumph Hurdle. That day, and with victory at his mercy, Gary Moore’s horse with son Jamie on board got his hooves inexplicably tangled and caught up, jolting his jockey to the ground.
Jamie was understandably devastated and the images of him with his head in his hands long after the field had crossed the line will live long in the memory for racing fans.
Since then Goshen has been a rather unimpressive sixth of six, third of seven and last of 10, so punters are entitled to wonder if that blunder has knocked the stuffing out of him. But if he and Moore can get themselves in front at the last flight of hurdles on Boxing Day, you’ll hear the cheers well outside of Tier 4.
TIZZARD’S NOVICE CHASER IS LOOKING FOR HIS BIG BREAK
Three years ago Bryony Frost burst onto the jump racing scene with her first Grade One victory.
The young jockey was already making serious waves as a conditional jockey but that win on Boxing Day with Black Corton in the Kauto Star Novices’ Chase and the exuberant interview which followed was a moment she will definitely look back on as a turning point in her career.
Last year the race threw up an intriguing winner in Slate House, a horse who has promised much since an early hurdles win at Cheltenham’s November Meeting three years ago but hasn’t quite hit the heights trainer Colin Tizzard would have hoped for since.
Tizzard sends The Big Breakaway out in this race hoping he can win back to back renewals of one of the biggest novice chases of the season. But he was disappointingly beaten at Exeter at the start of the month and connections will be hoping he can rebound here on a sounder surface than the heavy ground he was on then.
Olly Murphy hasn’t won this race before but will hope The Wolf can put that right. Another who was disappointing when fifth on his last outing, his only other attempt over bigger obstacles was when winning a hot beginners’ chase at Chepstow at the end of October.
Shan Blue for the Skelton brothers, Golan Fortune and the impressive hurdler-turned-chaser If The Cap Fits add further depth to one of the races of the festive period.
BRILLIANT ALTIOR TO REWARD RACING FANS’ PATIENCE
If you’re this far down the column we’ll assume we don’t have to tell you who Altior is. Nicky Henderson’s stable superstar has only lost once over fences, defeated by Cyrname at Ascot last November to end a 19-race winning streak.
Much has been made of Henderson’s decisions to withdraw him from other contests at short notice since then, most notably (and recently) on the eve of the Betfair Tingle Creek at Sandown Park just three weeks ago.
However, his trainer assures us he will be at Kempton on Sunday for the Ladbrokes Desert Orchid Chase, a Grade Two over two miles where he will take all the beating.
Altior has won all four of his career starts at this Surrey track, including this race in 2018 when he fended off the challenge of Diego Du Charmil, who will line up on Sunday against him again.
Of the other contenders it’s probably Vif Rouge and Put The Kettle On who excite us most. Harry Whittington’s Vif Rouge was the runaway winner of the Bentley Flying Spur Handicap Chase at Cheltenham in October, before finishing a gallant third to Politologue and Geaneteen in the Tingle Creek at Sandown Park the day Altior was pulled out.
At the time of writing Henry De Bromhead was waiting to find out if travel restrictions due to COVID will prevent him sending any runners to Kempton for the Christmas Festival. But if Put The Kettle On is allowed to make an appearance then the Mare who won this year’s Arkle at the Cheltenham Festival could well be the biggest danger of them all.
Sceau Royal is one more for the notebook in a race which, should they all get to the starting line, is yet another reason to drop everything this Christmas.
JOHNSON SKIPS KEMPTON TO FOLLOW HIS STAR
While the highlights of the Boxing Day racing are undoubtedly at Kempton Park, Wincanton’s popular fixture also throws up some fantastic sport.
The Lord Stalbridge Memorial Cup Handicap Chase was won last year by Worthy Far, trained by Paul Nicholls and ridden by Bryony Frost just a few miles from the team’s Ditcheat base.
This year Nicholls won’t have a runner in the race, but that opens up the field nicely for some three mile chasers who have no doubt been targeting this for a while.
Neil King would probably have asked Frost to ride Nearly Perfect for him had she not been otherwise engaged on board Frodon in the King George at Kempton Park. But his consistency is enough to suggest that he will be in the frame come the finish.
Few of these contenders had jockeys lined up when we put this column together on Tuesday, but one of those who has a partner booked already is Colin Tizzard’s Sizing Cusimano with young Brendan Powell.
The seven year old has been in the winner’s enclosure for more than two years when winning at Uttoxeter, but a good second place at Huntingdon in November and a decent run when sixth of 11 at Exeter earlier this month at least have him ready for this.
However, perhaps most notable about this fixture is the presence of Richard Johnson, the four-time Champion jockey who has more than 3,500 career winners to his name.
As a result we like the look of his mount Barbrook Star, trained by Phillip Hobbs and a winner here last year. Drawing a line through his last performance when pulled up in August at Uttoxeter we’re even prepared to overlook the fact he hasn’t won on his first outing of the season throughout his career.
Win, lose or draw have a fantastic Christmas and we look forward to hopefully seeing you at our courses in 2021.