DEFENDING champion Clan Des Obeaux joined the Kempton greats by producing a championship round of jumping to successfully defend the Ladbrokes King George VI Chase – jump racing’s Christmas highlight.
Co-owned by football legend Sir Alex Ferguson, Paul Barber and Ged Mason, the horse was providing trainer Paul Nicholls with a new record 11th victory in the three mile Grade One contest.
And Nicholls believe Clan Des Obeaux could now be a genuine Cheltenham Gold Cup contender after powering to victory under Sam Twiston-Davies from stablemate Cyrname.
It was a redemptive win for Twiston-Davies who was previously stable jockey to Nicholls before being replaced by Harry Cobden who chose Cyrname after partnering Clan Des Obeaux last year.
The jockey has regained his previous zest after being freed from the pressure – and expectation – that he faced when he replaced the legendary Ruby Walsh at the Nicholls yard.
After initially taking a lead from the outsider Aso, Cyrname adopted his customary prominent position at the head of affairs with over a circuit to go. Yet, while he jumped athletically, he was also hanging left while Clan Des Obeaux was jumping effortlessly into contention.
The winner pulled right away between the final two fences, winging the last to score by 21 lengths, with Cyrname second and the Irish raider Footpad in third.
The big disappointment was the Colin Tizzard-trained Lostintranslation, who seemed to be struggling to keep tabs early on and was ultimately pulled up by Robbie Power, having briefly looked like he might play a part at one stage.
Clan des Obeaux was becoming the first dual winner of the race since the Nicholls-trained Silviniaco Conti prevailed in 2013 and 2014.
“I’ve always said he’s a better horse this year, as he’s a year older and stronger. If he keeps going forward it could put him in the Gold Cup picture,” maintained Nicholls.
“The key is to be really fresh – it wouldn’t be the worst decision to go straight to Cheltenham with him. And we’ve got to go for 12 King Georges now, haven’t we? There’s no reason why both horses won’t be back next year.
“I just love winning the good races – preparing the horses for the big days is what I really enjoy more than anything now. To win for my landlord Paul Barber, in his colours, and for Ged, who sponsors my yard, and Sir Alex, who has already been on the phone, is fantastic.”
While keen to take nothing away from his winner, the champion trainer feels Cyrname performed below par. He said: “I don’t think he had that normal zest and he just ran a bit flat. Harry niggled him a couple of times and it’s quite possible the race at Ascot took more out of him than we first thought. He still ran a good race and he’ll be back.”
Earlier Epatante proved herself a mare out of the very top drawer with a hugely impressive display in the Christmas Hurdle under Barry Geraghty.
The JP McManus-owned five-year-old disappointed when hot favourite for the mares’ novices’ hurdle at last season’s Cheltenham Festival, but dominated her rivals on her seasonal reappearance at Newbury last month – earning her this sharp rise in class.
Trainer Nicky Henderson added: “She is lovely and has a great temperament with a lovely attitude and she is a great jumper. I saw Barry for 30 seconds after the race and I said, ‘what next?’ He said ‘win the Champion Hurdle’, so I suppose that is what I better do! Does she need to do any more before then? I don’t know. We will think about it.”
Meanwhile the attention turns to Chepstow today where Elegant Escape bids to become the first dual winner of the Coral Welsh Grand National in 30 years.
The Martin Pipe-trained Bonanza Boy made history when becoming the first ever back-to-back winner in 1989. The last dual victor before him was Limonali in 1959 and 1961, while Lacatoi landed three renewals in the 1930s.
Hopes are high that Tizzard’s Elegant Escape can rediscover the winning trail in Monmouthshire – despite the burden of 11st 12lb – and compensate the stable for Lostintranslation’s King George run and the bruised foot that also saw Thistlecrack pulled out of Kempton’s big race.
Joe Tizzard, assistant to his father, said: “Any rain that falls will play to his strengths. He is 9lb higher than last year, but he won the race well and he is a seven-year-old who is hopefully improving.”
Elegant Escape has proved himself as good as ever this season by finishing second in the Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby and then third in the Ladbrokes Trophy at Newbury.