Don Cossack to be crowned King of Kempton’s Christmas cracker

WHITE CHRISTMAS STAR -- the legendary Desert Orchid, who landed Kempton's Christmas showpiece race, the King George VI Chase, four times between 1986 and 1990.

WHITE CHRISTMAS STAR -- the legendary Desert Orchid, who landed Kempton's Christmas showpiece race, the King George VI Chase, four times between 1986 and 1990.

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By all means, deck the halls with boughs of holly.

By all means, tuck into your turkey, figgy pudding and mince pies.

By all means, jingle your bells, rest ye merry gentlemen and look out on the feast of Stephen with Good King Wenceslas.

But whatever you do, don’t miss the King George! That’s the Christmas gospel according to Silverwood.

Kempton’s annual Boxing Day showpiece, which has been graced by greats such as Desert Orchid and Kauto Star, has always been a captivating highlight of the festive season. However, this year’s William Hill-sponsored renewal promises a feast to match even the most scrumptious of Christmas dinners. Wherever you are at ten past three on Saturday afternoon, make sure a TV screen is within viewing distance and make sure it’s tuned in to Channel 4 or Racing UK.

The withdrawal, because of injury, of Cheltenham Gold Cup hero CONEYGREE has robbed the race of one of its fascinating facets. But the line-up still oozes quality, bringing together the likes of Willie Mullins’s superstar VAUTOUR, the highest-rated chaser on the planet, DON COSSACK, the revitalised CUE CARD, the sparkling winner of the Hennessy Gold Cup, SMAD PLACE, and the reigning King George champion, SILVINIACO CONTI, bidding for a Dessie and Kauto-type hat-trick in the race. And we haven’t even mentioned another class act (and another grey) on the comeback trail, AL FEROF.

Salivating at the mouth yet? You will be once Smad Place bounds away in a bold bid to repeat his front-running masterclass at Newbury, closely pursued by the freewheeling Cue Card, with Vautour and the Don in close attendance and Silviniaco handy too, revived possibly by the first-time fitting of blinkers.

Working out how the £200,000 blockbuster might unfold is a perilous business, especially as all five of the chief protagonists are not averse to making the running. But it’s Christmas, a little flutter is essential and it falls on us all to try and work out the likely winner.

Ladbrokes are already tempting us with a money-back offer if the SP favourite wins. Although apparently generous, it’s also clever because it’s far from clear what will start favourite.

At present, Don Cossack holds the call, and the eight-year-old has begun to look the real deal since fluffing his lines in the Ryanair Chase, sponsored by his owner, at the Cheltenham Festival in March. The grim, glum faces of connections in the unsaddling enclosure that day are etched in the memory, but so are the stellar performances he delivered at Aintree and Punchestown weeks later when he twice thrashed Cue Card and dismissed Gold Cup runner-up Djakadam for more readily than Coneygree had at the Festival.

Not many horses can take in all three major spring festivals and come out the other side intact. But Don Cossack, beaten just that once in his last nine starts, has shown no ill effects in two smooth, routine wins this term and he goes to Kempton at the peak of his game.

Trainer Gordon Elliott believes Vautour is his horse’s biggest danger. While Mullins and owner Rich Ricci believe Vautour, breathtaking winner at each of the last two Cheltenham Festivals, could be better than their Champion Hurdle machine, Faugheen.

The six-year-old must overcome some sizeable question marks, however. The King George is usually won by a horse with lots of Grade One chasing experience, and over 3m. Vautour has run just five times over fences and has never tackled this trip. Furthermore, he was far from convincing on his seasonal re-appearance at Ascot when struggling to fend off an inferior stablemate of Silviniaco Conti, despite receiving weight.

By his lofty standards, Silviniaco himself has been a laboured disappointment in two outings this term. But he’s been troubled by wart-like skin tumours, and trainer Paul Nicholls is sure to have him cherry-ripe on Saturday at a track he relishes. Stamina is his forte and in a race sure to be run at a relentless gallop, it’s not folly to envisage him picking up the pieces.

Twice in this contest, Nicholls’s charge has seen off Cue Card (and Al Ferof, who just might be better over 2m4f). Yet Colin Tizzard’s popular nine-year-old turned the tables in the Betfair Chase at Haydock last month and returns to Kempton for another crack, seemingly blessed with new-found reserves of stamina after a breathing operation.

A similar op has also helped to unlock improvement from Smad Place. He now needs to find more as he steps out of handicap company, but don’t rule it out. His exhibition at Newbury was a revelation.

It all adds up to a race truly fit for a Christmas King. After much head-scratching, I reckon the Kempton throne is reserved for the crowning of Don Cossack.