High-class duels the focus of two potentially epic Leopardstown showdowns
Richard Forristal says spectacular action should keep fans in festive mood
Such is the long and glorious history and tradition of the King George VI Chase that it is the event on which the whole Christmas racing programme turns.
That’s as it should be, but there is a case to be made for a Leopardstown race that doesn’t even have a proper title this year being laden with more quality than Tuesday’s Kempton cracker.
The contest formerly known as the Ericsson and then Lexus Chase is without a sponsor on the 25th anniversary of its existence in its current guise.
Still, a bit like Trigger's broom, the race now known simply as the Christmas Chase has developed a prestige and identity of its own that belies its moving parts.
On this occasion, the €150,000 feature has the makings of an absolutely mind-boggling bout on an excellent card that also boasts a tantalising Christmas Hurdle rematch between Apple’s Jade and Nichols Canyon.
A field of 12 has been declared for the showpiece three-mile Grade 1, spearheaded by last season’s Gold Cup hero Sizing John.
Eight of the dazzling dozen have amassed an aggregate 24 top-level successes, which constitutes seven more than the entire field in Tuesday’s big race at Kempton have to their names after the event.
That is not to be sniffed at, even with the elements as inclement as they are.
Among those taking on the irrepressible Sizing John is Jonjo O’Neill’s Minella Rocco, his closest pursuer at Cheltenham in March.
Willie Mullins’ Djakadam, himself a runner-up in two Gold Cups, is also in the mix after being slammed by Jessica Harrington’s brilliant seven-year-old on their respective reappearances in the John Durkan Memorial Chase.
JP McManus also has Carlingford Lough and Edwulf to call on, while last year’s winner Outlander is one of five who will sport a variation of Michael O’Leary’s Gigginstown House Stud colours.
Then, of course, there is Yorkhill, who will join Djakadam in the quest to secure just a second win in the race for Mullins.
We shouldn’t be lured into reducing either the Christmas Chase or Hurdle to duels, but there is an inevitable temptation to do so. The fact that Sizing John and Yorkhill can be so readily pitched as opposing forces is also convenient for such a narrative.
Fascinatingly, we have a race-fit, established title-holder being challenged by the returning young pretender. Sizing John is all quiet efficiency and even temperament, a bombproof totem in contrast to the highly-strung, recalcitrant Yorkhill.
As was so evident at both Cheltenham and Punchestown last term, Sizing John willingly and compliantly aids and abets his rider Robbie Power.
Quite the opposite is true of Yorkhill to date, never more noticeably than when he gave Paul Townend such a torrid time at Aintree last year on their only previous public engagement together.
For all his quirks and brash demeanour, though, the Presenting gelding possesses no end of class. It invariably extricates him from the trouble he gets himself in, so that intangible element of sheer quality is at least something both horses have in common.
Yorkhill undoubtedly has it to prove over this longer trip on his reappearance, but the prospect of his serving it up to a horse who is fast becoming a standing dish even in such elite company is something to savour.
Harrington faced a bit of a conundrum as to which route to take with Sizing John. Charting a path back to Cheltenham with the reigning Gold Cup winner brings a pressure all of its own, and she is probably just feeling her way with a horse whose granite constitution is arguably one of his most valuable traits.
Her new stable stalwart comes here at the peak of his powers, same as Denman did en route to Gold Cup glory a decade ago.
The exquisite Moone handler has prioritised retaining the Holy Grail over all else for Sizing John this season, so it is surely significant that she is content to pitch him in here just 18 days after his emphatic Punchestown comeback.
A week earlier, Apple’s Jade posted a similarly easy display to slam Mullins’ reigning Stayers’ Hurdle victor Nichols Canyon by nine lengths.
No less than Harrington should be applauded for her approach with Sizing John, so too should Gigginstown and Elliott be commended for their bold strategy with the diminutive mare.
Of her six Grade 1 triumphs, four have come in open company. Restricting her to mares-only contests would undermine her legacy, but she is being given every chance to fulfil all of her enormous potential.
Same as last year’s Christmas Hurdle winner Vroum Vroum Mag, her presence in this three-miler lends real substance to the occasion.
Mullins’ Augusta Kate is also in there pitching for the girls, while Harrington relies on her 2014 Champion Hurdle bruiser Jezki as well as the progressive Supasundae.
It all makes for a pretty spectacular show, so let’s hope the festivities aren’t foiled by the forecast frost and fog. The weather has done enough damage already.
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