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Christmas racing review

Strange that the new clear favourite for the Cheltenham Gold Cup is Djakadam, the only one of the top five horses in the Gold Cup market who did not run over Christmas.

While the King George VI Chase at Kempton and the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown provided some answers, they also generated new questions.  Like, would Don Cossack have won the King George if he hadn’t fallen at the second last fence?  And, how much more energy did Don Poli have left at the end of the Lexus Chase?

Also, we thought that his run in the King George would provide a clear indication of whether or not Vautour would stay the Gold Cup trip.  It didn’t.

First things first.  The King George VI Chase and the Lexus Chase are two massive prizes in their own right.  They are two of the biggest races on National Hunt racing’s calendar, the highlights of the Christmas festivals.

Don Poli provided Willie Mullins with his first ever win in the Lexus, thereby normalising a situation that could not have remained in a state of disequilibrium for much longer.  Cue Card’s King George win was an emotional one for Colin Tizzard and Paddy Brennan, a deserved one for the horse on his fourth attempt, and now a poignant one since the death last Wednesday of the horse’s part-owner Bob Bishop.

But the King George and the Lexus are both also checkpoints on the road to the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

Cue Card threw his hat into the Gold Cup ring with his King George win, and he has to have a go now, especially given that he has now won the first two legs of the new triple crown, therefore putting himself in line for a £1 million bonus if he does win the Gold Cup.  However, it’s not going to be easy.

Colin Tizzard’s horse stays three miles well, but he has another two and a half furlongs to go in the Gold Cup, and that might stretch his stamina beyond its limit.  He remains a pacey three-mile horse.  He finished second in the Arkle over two miles as a novice in 2012, he won the Ryanair Chase over two and a half in 2013.  On the one occasion on which he ventured beyond three miles, in the Punchestown Gold Cup last April, he was beaten 15 lengths by Don Cossack.

Also, Cue Card is 10 now, and no 10-year-old has won the Gold Cup since Cool Dawn in 1998.  Kauto Star couldn’t win it at 10, Denman couldn’t win it at 10.

Vautour has just turned seven, and that is a positive in the context of the Gold Cup.  It is a young horse’s race.  Willie Mullins’ horse ran out of his skin in the King George.  Racing prominently from early, Ruby Walsh allowed him stride on in front seven fences from the winning post, and he remained there until two strides from it.

You can argue, he was caught, ergo he didn’t stay, but that may be too simplistic a view.  Take Cue Card out of the race, and Vautour is a 13-length King George winner and the 2/1 favourite for the Gold Cup.  And it is interesting that his rider said afterwards that he wished he had made more use of his horse, not less.

Ruby Walsh was superb in minimising the negative impact of the horse’s tendency to shift to his left over his fences, but the tendency was still there.  While that tendency is a negative at a right-handed track like Kempton, it can be a positive at a left-handed track like Cheltenham.  Vautour could win a Ryanair Chase standing on his head, he could even have the pace to win a Champion Chase, but he could also still win a Gold Cup.

It is not stretching it to say that, given the manner in which the race worked out, Don Cossack would probably have won the King George had he not fallen at the second last fence.

Vautour looked the likely winner at the time of Don Cossack’s departure but, given that Cue Card won it, you have to think that the Gigginstown House horse would have at least gone mighty close.

He had moved from just behind Cue Card at the third last fence to just in front of him by the time the pair of them picked up at the second last.  If Gordon Elliott’s horse had landed on his feet at the second last, given how strong a stayer he is, it is probable that he would have beaten Cue Card, therefore it is probable that he would have won the race.

It is testament to Don Cossack’s talent that he was able to manoeuvre himself into a challenging position at all at the top of the home straight.  He didn’t have the run of the race.  He got shuffled back at a crucial stage early on the final circuit when track position was important, and he had to make up that ground on the run down the side of the track and around the home turn.  A fall is rarely ideal, but he ran a massive race, and he remains a big Gold Cup contender.

It is interesting that several bookmakers extended Don Poli’s Gold Cup odds after the Lexus Chase, despite the fact that he won it.  Okay, so he just wasn’t visually impressive, but Don Poli is rarely visually impressive.

When he took up the running on the run to the final fence, you would have loved to have seen him clear away over the last and win by eight lengths, but that wouldn’t be Don Poli’s style.  He only ever just does enough, Don Poli only does as much as Don Poli has to do.  Also, Don Poli is two for two at the Cheltenham Festival.  He thrives there.

Lexus runner-up First Lieutenant is a remarkable performer, but his official rating is just 147 now, and a half-length defeat of a 147-rated chaser is not Gold Cup winning form.  Also, the winning time for the Lexus Chase was poor, it was the second slowest comparative time on the day, second only to the bumper.

Willie Mullins’ horse will have to step significantly on that if he is to be a Gold Cup contender.  You know that he will, the Mullins horses almost always progress as the season develops, but the question is, by how much?

It’s just another one of those questions.

© The Sunday Times, 3rd January 2016