RUBY WALSH and the William Hill King George VI Chase need no introduction. This is the Boxing Day race that he won a record five times with the legendary Kauto Star, who became the unrivalled king of Kempton.
Yet Walsh faces an altogether tougher proposition when he partners the Irish raider Champagne Fever in today’s eagerly-anticipated three-mile steeplechase. Even though the seven-year-old is a dual Cheltenham Festival winner courtesy of victories in the 2012 Champion Bumper and the following year’s Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, he has never been first past the post at Christmas.
This is not the only imponderable for Walsh to contemplate when he lines up against reigning champion Silviniaco Conti as well as the likes of Cue Card, Al Ferof, Dynaste and Menorah – this will be the first time that Champagne Fever, owned by Susan and Rich Ricci and trained by Willie Mullins, has raced over three miles.
“I think he will be suited by the step up in trip, but he is a bit of a Jekyll and Hyde,” said Walsh. “He’s never won at Christmas. He was beaten in a bumper when we thought that was impossible and then he made a mistake at the second-last in a novice chase at Leopardstown and got run over by Defy Logic.
“Champagne Fever on a good day is a very good horse, but he’s had a few off-days when he hasn’t been so good. You are guessing, and you hope, that the step up will suit him. I think it will, but you can’t say for certain.
“It’s a very good race. You’ve got Silviniaco Conti, Cue Card and Menorah. It’s the King George and will be run at a really good gallop. It will be intense all the way. There will be pressure on everyone’s jumping and I’m hoping to settle him.”
As for Mullins, who is now establishing himself as the pre-eminent National Hunt trainer in Britain and Ireland, he hopes to draw on his experience in the King George with Florida Pearl.
It was in 2000 that Mullins decided his stable star was mature enough to contest the King George VI Chase – he had finished third behind See More Business in the previous year’s Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Mullins had never been to Kempton before and was taken aback by the size of the Christmas fixture. Although Florida Pearl travelled much the best, as he so often did in his races, he was second to the French raider First Gold.
The experience was not lost on him, though, as 12 months later, in the hands of Adrian Maguire, he beat Best Mate – the future triple Gold Cup winner – in one of the most famous finishes to the great race.
Now Mullins hopes the experiences of Florida Pearl will stand him in good stead.
“I’d not been to Kempton before we took Florida Pearl and I was amazed with the reaction we got,” said the trainer whose late father Paddy trained the 1986 Gold Cup hero Dawn Run.
“In Ireland I don’t think we appreciate how big a race the King George is. It was like winning the Grand National, the reaction from people all over the world, it was absolutely huge so we’re looking forward to it.
“We’re hoping going out in trip is good for Champagne Fever. Looking at the required statistics that have been needed in the past to win a King George which somebody mentioned recently, I think there were 11 parameters of which eight or nine were needed and I think our fellow qualified on just three. But then they also said Montjeus (Hurricane Fly’s sire) don’t win at Cheltenham.
“He’s up against it in terms of experience. It’s a fair question to ask a horse of his experience, but we may as well run there. When we went with Florida Pearl we thought we were going to be very close but we learned a couple of valuable lessons which we were able to use the following year.
“We learned from Florida Pearl how to approach the race, tactics, travel, stable. You have to lose a final to win a final and we did that year. With Champagne Fever if things don’t go well we’ll know what to do next year if we need to go back.”
This could be a landmark day for Mullins, Walsh and Ricci who team up in the preceding William Hill Christmas Hurdle with Faugheen.
It was only relatively recently that Mullins opted to keep Faugheen, last season’s Neptune Investment Hurdle winner at the Cheltenham Festival, over the smaller obstacles and this rising star is ante-post favourite for next year’s Champion Hurdle ahead of today’s clash with Fighting Fifth Hurdle winner Irving.
“The day we bought Faugheen we were looking at a novice chasing career. Whether he’ll jump a fence now or not I don’t know, that will depend on his next two runs. I wouldn’t have dreamt about Champion Hurdles when we bought him, though,” he said.