The Christmas racing programme is the point where Britain’s steeplechase season really kicks into gear. Bumper crowds and some really high-quality racing invariably make for some great sporting occasions in their own right. But the Christmas programme always involves a distinctly forward focus as well.
With the great springtime events of the Cheltenham Festival and the Grand National looming on the horizon, whatever happens over the Christmas and New Year programmes will be avidly read as an indication of the leading fancies’ chances in the months ahead.
It seems as though the level of interest in the big events of the spring time only grows from year to year. Last year’s Cheltenham crowds were capped following a series of record attendances, but over the course of the four-day meeting close to a quarter of a million happy punters made their way through the gates at the famous Gloucestershire track. It is a similar tale at Aintree, home of the Grand National. And of course, the television audience for both events is also numbered in the millions. The sheer size of those crowds alone adds a dramatic dimension to both events that raises them to the level of truly-global events.
Last year’s winner of the Cheltenham Gold Cup, Lord Windermere, is a 12/1 ante post bet to repeat his victory whilst 2013 winner Bobs Worth also strongly fancied at 10/1. Heading both in the markets though is Silviniaco Conti – winner of the Betfair Chase last month.
Silviniaco Conti looks set to go off as a short-priced favourite for the King George VI chase at Kempton on Boxing Day. Trainer Paul Nicholls recently described last year’s winner of the same race as being in the form of his life at the moment, and with the ground liable to be on the heavy side – and thereby very much to his liking – Silviniaco Conti is expected to put down another serious marker. Whether he can sustain that kind of form throughout the season is open to question, but for the time being Silviniaco Conti looks like the one to beat.
Lord Windermere is set for an outing on December 28th at Leopardstown in the Lexus Chase following an indeterminate third placing in the John Durkan at Punchestown early in December. A couple of early fallers caused a certain amount of havoc in that race, so reading anything into the result is questionable at best. Punters will be looking to Leopardstown for a more revealing indication of how Jim Culloty’s two-time Cheltenham winner is gearing up for his Cheltenham defence.
Bobs Worth is also set to make the trip having won the race last year and Nicky Henderson’s nine-year-old is another that punters will be watching with a view to the spring. The winner of the big race in 2013 has lost nothing over the past couple of years and the weight of interest in the market concerning his chances looks thoroughly justified.
There is inevitably plenty of competition besides those names here. And it is that level of competitive uncertainty that gives steeplechase racing its distinctive characteristic. The element of uncertainty surrounding each and every race means that punters are guaranteed a thoroughly dramatic sporting encounter with every start.
In a world where so much sport has been reduced to a form of athletic accounting – where money talks and where so little is left to chance – national hunt racing offers a refreshing breath of fresh air. No one can tell a horse that it is playing for a new contract or that it should switch to plan B. Each race is its own unfolding drama – even if they are scrutinised from the stands as pointers to dramas yet to come. Whisper it quietly, but for all the form books, the unpredictability is all part of the fun.