Thursday, November 22, 2012

William Hill Winter Festival

William Hill Winter Festival

By Stephen Dwyer

With twelve top quality races across two days, the William Hill Winter Festival at Kempton is the finest mid-season meeting in the National Hunt calendar. A crowd of over 30,000 travelled to Middlesex to attend the festival last year where Kauto Star was the leading attraction. Since William Hill began sponsoring the Winter Festival in 2009, it has been heavily promoted within the industry. The festival features multiple Grade 1 races including the Feltham Novices’ Steeple Chase, the Christmas Hurdle and the William Hill King George VI Chase, all showcase events in their own right.

From a betting perspective the King George VI Chase day at Kempton is one of the busiest of the year. In 2011 it formed a large percentage of the £100m wagered on Boxing Day. The King George is a perennial favourite for punters and layers alike and with a prize fund of £180,000, it attracts the top staying chasers. The race is the centrepiece of the two day William Hill Winter Festival and is second only in the pecking order of National Hunt racing to the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

First run in 1937, the King George VI Chase has been held on Boxing Day since 1947. Arkle, Wayward Lad, Desert Orchid and One Man are among the greats of National Hunt racing to have won the race. Many will acknowledge that for the first time since 2006, there will be no Kauto Star at Kempton.  Winner of five of the last six King George’s, the retirement of the greatest National Hunt horse since Arkle opens the door for the next contender to the throne. Kauto Star retired amidst good company, Long Run, already a Gold Cup and King George winner heads the betting for the King George at odds of 11/4 with race sponsors William Hill. Multiple Grade 1 winner, Grand Crus (9/2) is close to Long Run in the betting and Paul Nicholl’s holds a strong hand with the exciting Silviniaco Conti (5/1) and Kauto Stone (10/1) who is now proven over the trip.

Even without the great Kauto Star, this year’s renewal of the King George is highly anticipated as Kate Miller, William Hill PR Director, noted: “Whilst Kauto Star has dominated the William Hill King George for the last six years, the entries this year demonstrate what a fantastic race it is and the legacy of the King George being the mid-season Championship is set to continue.  As things stand, we are expecting a competitive field with the winner likely to head the market for the Gold Cup next March.”

Thanks in no small part to Kauto Star, trainer Paul Nicholls boasts no less than seven wins in the race and is its leading handler. Aside from the five timer from Kauto Star, he won it twice with See More Business. The King George is a race famed for multiple repeat winners. This is backed up by the statistic that no less than twelve horses have won it more than once.

Favourite for the race, Long Run, has not raced since his Cheltenham Gold Cup third to Synchronised. Beaten twice by Kauto Star last term, the seven year old boasted his only victory of the season when narrowly winning the Grade 2 Betfair Denman Chase at Newbury. He has yet to confirm the form showed when winning the King George and Cheltenham Gold Cup in 2010/11 season but his record at Kempton reads 112 so he has a huge chance if back to his best. At times Long Run needs to have his mind made up for him at fences and works best when ridden prominently but he is still a brilliant horse and you cannot safely discount him.

Both Long Run and Grand Crus have won the Feltham Novices' Chase at Kempton. Last year Grand Crus ran out a hugely impressive winner of the 3m race when eased down ahead of Silviniaco Conti. Grand Crus has not raced since his fourth in the RSA at Cheltenham but has won twice on his seasonal reappearance and David Pipe’s grey is a class act.

The Nicky Henderson team saddle Finian's Rainbow who overcame early jumping errors in his races last season before comfortably winning the  John Smith's Melling Chase at the Aintree Festival. Finian's Rainbow is unbeaten at Kempton, he won his bumper by 6l in 2009 before outstaying Wishfull Thinking in the Grade 2 Desert Orchid Chase at the Winter Festival last year. He has yet to race beyond 2m 4f but he showed stamina in abundance in Aintree and may stay the trip. Another entry worth noting is Kempton Park specialist Nacarat, he has won both the Racing Post Chase and the Racing Plus Chase at the track and has run in the last three renewals of the William Hill King George VI Chase.

Finally, Cue Card is an intriguing contender. He demolished a useful field in the Haldon Gold Cup at Exeter recently. In beating Menorah and Edgardo Sol, the odds of Cue Card were slashed from 20/1 to 8/1 for the King George. Cue Card’s jumping improved readily towards the business end of the race and his speed allowed for a 26 length victory. Trainer Colin Tizzard has always had Kempton’s Boxing Day highlight in mind for his six-year-old and said after his win at Exeter: “If he’s ever going to get three miles, it will be around Kempton. Pace is just not an issue for him as he was always cruising. He used to tank but he was a lot less fizzy than he normally is on his first run back. When Joe squeezed him up, he was gone.” What is also interesting is that the dam of Cue Card, Wicked Crack, was a three time winner over three miles in Ireland for Eddie Hales so on the face of it, Cue Card is equipped to stay the trip.

Though the highlight of the meeting is the King George, there are several other top class Grade 1 races to contend with. The Christmas Hurdle, won by Binocular for the past two years is always an exciting race and the Feltham Novices' Chase aims to be as competitive as ever.

With stiff fences and a short run in, you need a horse that can jump and travel well at Kempton. With several runners unbeaten at the track, this year’s William Hill Winter Festival promises to be as exciting as ever.


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