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SPORTS STORY

Five star?

Angus Loughran wonders if Kauto Star can notch a fifth consecutive King George, or whether the passing of time is starting to catch up with one of racing’s great champions

Can Kauto make it five? This is the question that dominates the National Hunt agenda in December as Paul Nicholls’ superstar tries to break yet more records in the King George VI Chase. He has absolutely dominated the race since 2006, winning every renewal by at least eight lengths, and last year he gave one of his best ever performances to blitz a good field by an astonishing 36 lengths.

However, this could well be the first year that Kauto goes off odds-against for the King George. Why? For starters, father time is catching up with the chasing legend. As a 10-year-old, Kauto will have some significant trends to overcome at Kempton – since the race was first run in 1937, only seven horses aged 10 or older have ever come out on top. Two of these were the great Desert Orchid in 1989 and 1990, and one was three-time winner Wayward Lad in 1985. In short, you have to be absolutely exceptional to win the King George at this age. Also, there have been chinks in Kauto’s armour in recent seasons. Last year saw him fall at Cheltenham for the first time in four seasons in the Gold Cup, and in truth put in a poor jumping performance on the day.

His prep race this season, the JnWine.com Champion Chase, was won in classy fashion but, given the standard of opposition, we learnt little about what sort of shape he is in for this campaign. Then there are the rivals – last year’s impressive Feltham Chase winner Long Run clearly likes the track, while Imperial Commander got very close to Kauto in the Betfair Chase last season. Though admittedly, the Gold Cup champion doesn’t seem to like Kempton, having been well off the pace in the last two King Georges.

But despite these concerns, there is simply no getting away from Kauto Star’s astounding record in this race and it would take a career best performance from any of his rivals to stop him making it five consecutive wins. Don’t forget that favourites have an excellent King George record, having won seven of the last eight renewals, while Paul Nicholls is the most successful trainer in the race’s history. These are positives that should not be ignored.

It’s not just the King George that racing enthusiasts can get stuck into on Boxing Day – Kempton also sees an array of top-class jumping action throughout the afternoon. Another feature is the Grade 1 Feltham Novices’ Chase – which as we mentioned was won by the impressive Long Run last year. Interestingly, Nicky Henderson’s charge was the first ever four-year-old to win the race – in fact, he was actually the first horse under the age of six to triumph since 2002. So in short, it’s normally worth swerving the youngsters here. Henderson is also a trainer to keep an eye on here, having won on four occasions since 1990.

The other Grade 1 on the Boxing Day card is the Christmas Hurdle, which forms the second leg of the Hurdling Triple Crown. From 2006 to 2009, WBX.com had offered a £1 million bonus for any horse that won the Fighting Fifth Hurdle, Christmas Hurdle and Champion Hurdle in the same season – though no horse has claimed this ‘Triple Crown’ since Kribensis in 1989/90. We have had two near misses in recent seasons, with Punjabi (2008/9) and then Go Native (2009/10) winning two of the three, but the £1 million bonus was never landed. Followers of trends will know that five- and six-year-olds have a superb Christmas Hurdle record – having won nine of the last 10 renewals – while trainer Noel Meade is well worth following after winning four times since 2004. A word of caution, however – Christmas Hurdle winners very rarely follow up in the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham. The aforementioned Kribensis was the last horse to do so over 20 years ago.

Two days later it’s off to Chepstow for another huge betting race, the Welsh National. Several horses have managed to win both this and the Grand National – notably Earth Summit, Bindaree and Silver Birch in recent years – though it’s relatively rare to win both in the same season. Ties with the Aintree showpiece have been gradually dwindling in recent years – only one of the last nine National winners competed in the Welsh version in the same season. A low weight is normally important here, with 11 of the last 13 winners carrying less than 11 stone. Shock winners are also surprisingly sparse; every winner since 1997 has returned 20/1 or less and five of the last 11 were single-figure prices. No trainer has a dominant record in this race but recent dual winners include Paul Nicholls (2004, 2005) and Nigel-Twiston Davies (1997, 2003).

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