Victorious in Ascot’s two premier races, Tom Scudamore and Richard Johnson are now seeking their first wins in the King George VI Chase. Tom Richmond reports on Boxing Day’s declarations.
TOP novice Grands Crus will attempt to breathe new life into his faltering career in the William Hill King George VI Chase – while Yorkshire’s Countrywide Flame is set to put his reputation on the line in the prestigious Christmas Hurdle rather than travel to Ireland for a clash with former champion Hurricane Fly.
These are the two most noteworthy declarations for Kempton’s eagerly-anticipated Boxing Day card which is still expected to beat the weather – despite inspections being called across the country as torrential rain shows little mercy and plays havoc with festive race plans.
Ten horses have been declared for the King George, with the field headed by 2010 winner Long Run and the Paul Nicholls-trained Kauto Stone, who is a half-brother to the now-retired five-time race winner Kauto Star.
In perhaps the most significant jockey booking, 17-time champion AP McCoy rides Gold Cup runner-up The Giant Bolster – well-backed in recent days – after David Pipe confirmed that Grands Crus will take his place in the line-up.
Electrifying when winning the Feltham Novices Chase a year ago at Kempton, the grey suffered unexpected reverses in both the RSA Chase at the Cheltenham Festival and last month’s Paddy Power Gold Cup when he pulled up abruptly.
Pipe’s stable jockey Tom Scudamore, who was at the peak of his powers at Ascot when Wyck Hill overcame punishing ground to win the feature handicap chase on Saturday, is confident of a big run after Grands Crus underwent a wind operation.
The jockey, seeking his first King George, said: “I was never happy in the Paddy Power. I was always having to niggle him along and he was beaten by the second fence. He was a shadow of himself on the day, he didn’t feel the same horse.
“Geoff Lane had a look at him the next day, he’s a world-leading expert, and the horse was back in the yard almost straight away. It’s been frustrating to watch from the sidelines, but hopefully we’ll get the real Grands Crus back.”
Pipe is also represented by Junior, who was added to the field at the supplementary stage by Barton-upon-Humber-based Middleham Park Racing. The dour stayer, victorious at Newcastle earlier this month, is also entered in Wetherby’s Rowland Meyrick Chase but Kempton remains the first choice of connections.
The Philip Hobbs-trained Captain Chris bids to improve on his third place 12 months ago and owner Diana Whateley’s husband Graham hopes the rain relents.
“We’ve got our fingers crossed that the weather is kinder to us than it has been,” he said. “I’ve always liked the horse very much. If he runs as well as he did last time, we’ll be very pleased.”
The 2010-11 top novice will be ridden by in-form Richard Johnson, who completed a significant double at Ascot on the Hobbs-trained De La Bech before winning the Grade One Long Walk Hurdle on Reve De Sivola, with the Tim Easterby-trained Trustan Times back in third.
More significantly, this is now the 17th consecutive season that the likable Johnson has recorded a century of winners – it’s his misfortune that his career has coincided with 17-time champion McCoy’s ruthless domination of National Hunt.
Well-beaten by the injury-sidelined record-breaker Big Buck’s at Newbury on December 1, Reve De Sivola turned this three-mile stamina test into a procession and is a 12-1 chance for the Ladbrokes World Hurdle in March.
A mud-splattered Johnson said: “Outside Cheltenham, this is probably the second-biggest staying hurdle, so it’s a great prize in itself. With the wet winter we’ve had, you wouldn’t be sure Cheltenham will be that quick this year. We’ll see, but the one thing you need in these races is to stay, and he does that.”
However, Johnson is without a ride in the William Hill Christmas Hurdle where John Quinn’s Countrywide Flame will attempt to secure a third Grade One prize after landing the JCB Triumph Hurdle in March before battling through the Newcastle mud, pictured below, to win the Fighting Fifth earlier this month.
A horse who has received insufficient credit for his achievements, he renews his rivalry with Donald McCain’s Cinders And Ashes who was a well-beaten second in the latter race.
Heavy ground was blamed for the defeat, though conditions will not be significantly better at Kempton. However, the McCain yard is in better form – its three winners at Haydock on Saturday helped stable jockey Jason Maguire complete his century of winners.
Quinn explained the decision not to take on Hurricane Fly, the 2011 Champion Hurdle victor, in the Istabraq Hurdle at Leopardstown.
“The weather is terrible and he’d have as much chance at Kempton as he would have in Ireland. He’s very well. It’s a good field, but he’s in fine fettle and I expect a good run out of him,” he said.
Though Dougie Costello was in the saddle for the Triumph , Denis O’Regan keeps the ride after partnering Countrywide Flame at Newcastle – the Norton trainer wants the partnership to develop ahead of a Champion Hurdle tilt next March.