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Christmas crackers - Five festive races you cannot afford to miss

Jonathan Vine in News 28 Nov 2018
A classic view of the runners in the King George.

Our expert lists five races jumps racing fans cannot afford to miss during the busy week of racing just after Christmas.

It’s a good job most of us will likely spend Christmas day eating our own bodyweight in Festive delights. As, once the racing starts on Boxing Day, you won’t get chance to sink your teeth into that leftover turkey!

Kempton and Leopardstown are amongst the courses staging fantastic meetings straight after Christmas, with Cheltenham’s New Year’s Day meeting attracting a large crowd the following week. Here are five races between Boxing Day and the New Year that punters will want to watch at all costs - even if it means you’ll cop a fearsome glance from the unapproving mother-in-law.

King George VI Chase (Wednesday 26th December)

Day one of Kempton’s Christmas extravaganza is highlighted by the historic King George VI Chase. This three-miler has been wowing jumps fans for three-quarters of a century and some of the finest chasers ever to scale a fence have triumphed in Kempton Park’s Boxing Day blockbuster.

The great Arkle helped the King George gain global exposure during the ‘60s, before the likes of Wayward Lad, Desert Orchid and One Man entered the Kempton winners’ enclosure on multiple occasions. Kauto Star took over where Best Mate and Kicking King left off during, stringing together four victories in five years between ’06 and ’11.

Might Bite remains the favourite to retain his Kempton crown in 2018, despite finishing 30 lengths adrift of Bristol De Mai and Native River in the Betfair Chase. Thistlecrack rounded off the top-three at Haydock and could try to win back the trophy he handed Colin Tizzard in 2016, with Politologue a well-backed outsider having triumphed in the Christy 1965 Chase on his seasonal reappearance.

A view of the runners before the Welsh Grand National at Chepstow.

Welsh Grand National (Thursday 27th December)

Kempton and Leopardstown may gather most of the attention on the Thursday after Christmas, but the most fabled and exciting race on the day will undoubtedly be the Welsh National. The biggest event of the year for Chepstow racecourse, organisers have been greeting capacity crowds with their synonymous Wye Valley hospitality for over 70 seasons.

Corbiere was the first to win the Welsh and the Grand National at Aintree in the same season. He was followed into the history books by Burrough Hill Lad, who won the Welsh Grand National in 1983 before going on to claim Cheltenham Gold Cup glory in the spring. Bindaree won this race eight months after winning the 2003 Grand National and he was later joined on the roll of honour by future Aintree champion Silver Birch and 2012 Gold Cup hero Synchronised.

James Bowen became the youngest jockey ever to win the race when he guided Raz De Maree to Welsh National glory 12 months ago. Vintage Clouds announced his National intentions with a strong victory at Haydock in November, and he could make the trip to Chepstow alongside Elegant Escape and Ms Parfois, if either are fit enough to appear again having run in the Ladbrokes Trophy.

Leopardstown Christmas Chase (Friday 28th December)

Under it’s new guise of the Savills Steeplechase, the Christmas Chase – formerly known as the Lexus Chase – is the most prestigious contest during Leopardstown’s Christmas Festival. This three mile Grade One has been thrilling fans since its maiden running in 1986 and some of the sport’s best staying chasers have thrust their names into headlines by producing stand-out performances.

Fergie Sutherland’s Imperial Call was already a Cheltenham Festival champion when he won this race 1997. Beef Or Salmon is widely regarded as one of the best chasers never to win the Gold Cup, but he claimed a hat-trick of Lexus Chase victories between ’02 and ’05. British raiders have tasted victory in the Christmas Chase on several occasions down the years. Best Mate scored a famous win over Beef Or Salmon in 2003, before being joined on the illustrious roll of honour by Gold Cup hero’s Denman and Bobs Worth.

Road To Respect handed Noel Meade the Christmas Chase trophy last season and he could be the hot-favourite to win again, having trounced his rivals in the JNWine Champion Chase in the autumn. Balko Des Flos, Bellshill, Monalee and Shattered Love could line up against the favourite, along with 2017 Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Sizing John, who hasn’t been seen since flopping in the Christmas Chase 12 months ago.

Poetic Rhythm (right) gets up to win the Challow in 2017.

Challow Novices’ Hurdle (Saturday 30th December)

Newbury stages their only Grade One of the season on the Saturday after Christmas and a top-quality field will approach the starter’s flag ahead of the Challow Novices’ Hurdle. This race was first staged back in 1971 and some of the sports’ most renowned trainers - like Toby Balding, Fred Rimell and David Elsworth - saddled winners of the Challow during it’s early years.

Future Grand National winner, Bindaree won the first Grade One of his eventful career here at Newbury in 1999. Denman, Wichita Lineman and Reve De Sivola all claimed Challow glory during their first season over jumps. Jonjo O’Neill’s Taquin Du Seuil scored a brilliant nine length victory in this race, before beating Uxizandre to the JLT Novices’ Chase crown Cheltenham Festival the following year.

Fergal O’Brien celebrated a maiden Grade One victory when Poetic Rhythm won this race last year. He will be hopeful Coolanly can follow up in the Challow having won the Hyde at Cheltenham, but he could face stiff competition from talented youngsters like Elixir De Nutz, Seddon and Thomas Darby.

A fantastic view of the finish in last year's Dipper.

Dipper Novices’ Chase (Tuesday 1st January)

A large crowd of hungover racing enthusiasts gathers at Prestbury Park on New Years Day, as Cheltenham brings in 2019 in fitting fashion. The most important race on the card is the Dipper Novices’ Chase, a two-and-a-half-mile Grade Two which has been won by many a budding star of the chasing game.

Little Owl won the first renewal of the Dipper, 18 months before he claimed Gold Cup glory under amateur jockey Jim Wilson. Nine-year-old Barton scored in this Grade Two 20 years later and he went on to claim a surprise victory in the Mildmay Novices’ Chase at Aintree later in the season.

There’s a real strength to the novice chasing ranks this season, with many star hurdlers making the transitions to the larger obstacles. Bags Groove won the Rising Stars at Wincanton, while Count Meribel triumphed at Cheltenham’s Open Meeting in November. Kalashnikov could step up in trip, while the likes of Santini, Black Op and Topofthegame could all make an appearance at Cheltenham on New Years’ Day and try to enhance their spring Festival credentials.

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Christmas crackers - Five festive races you cannot afford to miss

Our expert lists five races jumps racing fans cannot afford to miss during the busy week of racing just after Christmas.

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