Horses To Follow » Air Force One

Air Force One

Before we get into the frenetic Christmas rush, there are reasons for believing that it might be worthwhile taking the time now to take an interest in the Stan James King George VI Chase, set to be run at Kempton on St Stephen’s Day.

There are question marks over quite a few of the horses at the top end of the ante post market at present. Tidal Bay is far from certain to make the line up. Indeed, if the interpretation of the musings of his trainer Howard Johnson after the seven-year-old had finished second to Master Minded in the Tingle Creek Chase last Saturday is correct, he is an unlikely participant. Johnson was talking about giving the horse a break now and bringing him back for a prep race before Cheltenham, where the Ryanair Chase was his most likely target.

Voy Por Ustedes is not proven over the distance, and that is a huge factor in the context of the King George. You often hear it said that if a horse is going to get three miles anywhere, he will get it at Kempton. That makes sense on the face of it, given how flat the Sunbury track is. However, the reality is that the three-mile trip at Kempton places an unexpected premium on stamina. If you were to ask any racing enthusiast which track was stiffer, Ascot or Kempton, he would unequivocally answer the former, with its stiff uphill finish. However, somewhat surprisingly, the Racing Post standard time for a three-mile chase at Kempton is 14 seconds slower than for a three-mile chase at Ascot.

They rarely take any prisoners in the King George, even when the field is small, and you usually have to see out every yard of the three-mile trip if you are to prevail. Edredon Bleu was quite unusual in recent times as a King George winner who hadn’t raced over three miles previously, but he was a bit of a freak in more ways than one, being an 11-year-old in a contest that has been dominated by the younger brigade of late. From a trends-analysis point of view, you just put a line through a result like that and move on.

Voy Por Ustedes is undoubtedly a classy individual, an Arkle winner, a Champion Chase winner, and he seemed to stay two and a half miles well when he beat Master Minded at Aintree last April. But the jump from two and a half to three miles is huge. The list of classy individuals who were unproven over three miles and who came up short in the King George – including Travado, Flagship Uberalles, Azertyuiop and, famously, Remittance Man – is a long one, and it is much more likely that Voy Por Ustedes will join the list than that transcend it. Best odds of 9/2 about him are plenty short enough.

Our Vic is getting on now as a 10-year-old rising 11, given that the afore-mentioned Edredon Bleu is the only horse aged older than nine to have won the race since the institution that was Desert Orchid won it as an 11-year-old in 1990.

The Paul Nicholls-trained Noland is another probable non-runner, which is mildly surprising, as you would have thought that he deserved a shot at the King George after his win in the John Durkan Chase on Tuesday. Which brings us on to Noland’s stable companion, Kauto Star. He may be the Kauto Star of old, and there is no doubt that Kempton brings out the best in him, which is quite surprising, given that he does jump to his left, but there is no getting away from the fact that two of the best runs of his life have been in the last two King Georges.

That said, recent evidence is not wildly encouraging. Signs are that the son of Village Star hasn’t been the same horse since he succumbed to the Denman grind in the Cheltenham Gold Cup last March, rounding off the season, as he did, by getting beaten by Our Vic in the totesport Bowl at Aintree on his final run. He did look good on his seasonal debut this term, landing the Chase impressively at Down Royal, but it is easy to pick holes in that performance now. Main rival The Listener didn’t run any kind of race, and the runner-up, Light On The Broom, admirable performer though he is, is 12 years old and rated 135 – some three stone inferior to Kauto Star.

On his latest run, Kauto Star may have beaten Tamarinbleu and Snoopy Loopy in the Betfair Chase at Haydock had he not stumbled on landing over the last and unshipped his rider, or he may not have. At best, he would have been a narrow winner, and that pair were rated, respectively, 22lb and 12lb inferior. No doubt Nicholls will have him as good as he can have him for his attempt at the King George hat-trick, but the eight-year-old has not had the ideal preparation, and his best these days just might not be good enough. At best odds of 6/4, you can easily take him on.

In contrast to Kauto Star, Air Force One continues to progress. A hugely impressive winner of the Grade 1 Ellier Developments Chase at the Punchestown Festival at the end of last season, he travelled like the best horse in the United House Gold Cup at Ascot on his debut this term until lack of a recent run told, and he got run out of it by Roll Along on the run-in. Then he went and ran out of his skin to finish second in the Hennessy at Newbury two weeks ago.

I was disappointed that he couldn’t pick up Madison Du Berlais that day. The pair of them had it to themselves from the third last, and perhaps if Air Force One had jumped the second last a little better than he did, he may well have prevailed. He did travel like the most likely winner down to that obstacle, which was encouraging, but he just didn’t seem to see out the trip as well as the winner. The combination of three miles two and a half furlongs and rain-softened ground may have just stretched his stamina beyond its limit.

Although he shows a lot of knee action, the balance of Air Force One’s form suggests that he is at his best on good ground. Also, despite trainer Charlie Mann’s assertion, he has run his best races at right-handed tracks. True, he did finish second to Wichita Lineman in the Albert Bartlett Hurdle at left-handed Cheltenham, but he chased the winner home at a distance, that really wasn’t a great race for a Cheltenham Festival heat, and he would have been no better than third had Black Harry not fallen at the final flight. He has won six times since joining Mann, five times at right-handed tracks, once at figure-of-eight Fontwell. He has finished out of the first two just three times, each time at a left-handed track. The evidence is compelling.

Three miles around Kempton at a fast gallop should be just about ideal for the son of Lando. As a six-year-old, he is the ideal age for the race (six of the last eight winners were aged six or seven, and two of the last four were six), and there is no telling by how much these staying chasers improve from six to seven once they begin to progress. Air Force One has over a stone to make up on Kauto Star on official ratings, but such is his rate of progression and such are the suitability of likely conditions at Kempton on St Stephen’s Day, he has every chance of so doing. He is well over-priced at 14/1.

© The Sunday Times, 14th December, 2008