Vautour and Don Cossack backed to make King George Irish affair
Kempton preview: Faugheen expected to return to winning ways in Christmas Hurdle
Consistent: Don Cossack and jockey Bryan Cooper clear a fence on the way to winning this year’s Ladbrokes Ireland Kinloch Brae Steeplechase in Thurles, Co Tipperary. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
It’s a decade since Tom Taaffe saddled the last Irish-trained King George VI Chase winner, Kicking King. It’s half a century since Taaffe’s father, Pat, rode the greatest of them all, Arkle, to win the Kempton showpiece.
In all its history, though, the King George can rarely have had more of an Irish flavour than it will on Saturday.
Racing history is littered with shattered presumptions about supposed match races that have failed to materialise, but billing this year’s King George as a Don-Cossack-versus-Vautour head-to-head is proving irresistible for many, including the bookmakers.
Antepost betting for the St Stephen’s Day feature has been dominated by the pair and they continue to figure prominently among an Irish-flavoured Cheltenham Gold Cup marker now that the title-holder Coneygree is sidelined by injury.
Don Poli et al will undergo their own Christmas Gold Cup trial in Monday’s Lexus Chase at Leopardstown, but even the most green-eyed on this side of the Irish Sea acknowledge the King George’s allure, both on its own terms and in terms of Gold Cup significance.
Kicking King is one of just a handful of Irish-trained King George winners. That he was also a Gold Cup hero, like Cottage Rake (1948), Arkle (1965) and Captain Christy (1974-75), illustrates the sort of rare talent required for horses to successfully cross the Irish Sea and claim King George glory.
ExceptionFlorida PearlWillie Mullins
That the reigning Champion Hurdle winner Faugheen can earlier defend his Christmas Hurdle title and get comparatively overlooked in the buildup says plenty about the steeplechase centrepiece and also about Vautour’s reputation.
It’s a reputation that was built primarily on a stunning JLT Novices Chase victory at Cheltenham last March, but which then took a knock with an underwhelming return to action at Ascot a month ago.
“I hope we can get another performance like Cheltenham from him . . . I think he has that ability. He looked in a different league when he won the Supreme [Novices Hurdle] and has probably only reproduced that once since, in the JLT,” Mullins said
The eight-year-old Don Cossack, on the other hand, has been a model of consistency over the past 14 months, losing just once, in Cheltenham’s Ryanair Chase, and propelling himself to the top of the Anglo-Irish ratings with victories at Aintree and Punchestown.
Long acclaimed by Gordon Elliott as the best he’s trained, Don Cossack has hardly broken sweat in two starts this term and is surely at a career peak. Michael O’Leary’s Gigginstown Stud also has Valseur Lido in the King George, but this looks something of a date with destiny for Don Cossack.
No lingering concerns
What Don Cossack does have to contend with is, simply, Vautour’s potential and a rejuvenated Cue Card, who leads the home team on the back of two victories, including an ultra-impressive success in Haydock’s Betfair Chase. Paddy Brennan’s mount continues to exude class, but he is hardly going to get things his own way in this contest and doubts remain as to how much he finds when class isn’t enough and old-fashioned grit is required.
Such concerns used to swirl around Don Cossack too, but the Gigginstown star has put those firmly to bed and brings very solid credentials for a task that could see him join a small but hugely select Irish group of King George winners.
Faugheen is widely expected to resume winning ways after losing his unbeaten record in the Morgiana Hurdle, while his stable companions, Open Eagle and Net d’Ecosse, also take their chances on the Kempton undercard.