Richard Dunwoody previews the big Christmas races in the UK and Ireland and looks at some of the key trends.
It's the calm before the storm at the moment, but as we all know from Boxing Day onwards the top class action comes thick and fast with a whole host of 'must-see' races for NH fans to get stuck into.
Starting with the King George, I've already mentioned in previous week's that I think, despite having his critics, Long Run is still the one to beat in the Boxing Day feature. Yes, his jockey, Sam Waley-Cohen, is not everyone's cup of tea in the saddle, but he's still won plenty of big races with this horse and let's not forget he's still coming into the contest as the highest-rated.
That said, with a few key challengers having fallen by the wayside in recent weeks then his price has become a bit on the skinny side and unless you were on earlier in the year then the value seekers out there might be looking elsewhere for the winner.
Cue Card is a horse I like a lot, but this will be the first time he's tried this 3m trip and in ground that's set to be very testing he does have that question mark to overcome. On the other hand Paul Nicholls' Kauto Stone has won over this trip and in similar conditions when winning the JNWine.com Chase last time over in Ireland and being only 6 years-old then there could be more to come from this exciting chaser - Ruby in the saddle is an obvious plus too.
You get the feeling that if The Giant Bolster was with a more fashionable yard then he'd be shorter in the betting - after all he was last season's Gold Cup runner-up - so at around 10/1 he's sure to attract plenty of each-way support.
David Pipe's Grands Crus is on somewhat of a recovering mission after two poor runs now. He was hugely impressive when winning the Feltham, in a quicker time than the King George, on this card 12 months ago, but, although he's clearly got the form to take this I'd rather see him back to his best before getting involved - maybe if he doesn't sparkle here and with Big Buck's out of the picture then connections could opt to send him back over the smaller obstacles to freshen him up.
The Pipe yard also run Junior, who was interestingly supplemented last week for the race. He'll love the desperate conditions and we all know he'll have no issues staying. He'll probably take them along to put the emphasis on stamina and at around 25/1 he's certainly got place claims.
The final one worth a mention, for me, is Riverside Theatre. There are plenty of positive vibes coming out of the Henderson camp ahead about the form he's in at home and don't' forget he was an excellent second in this race back on 2010. After his Ryanair Chase win he's actually now only rated 2lbs behind Long Run, while he does seem to like the Kempton track - his record over both hurdles and fences at the Sunbury-On-Thames venue reads a very impressive 1-1-1-1-2!
The Christmas Hurdle on the same card is another fascinating clash as the Fighting Fifth Hurdle winner, Countrywide Flame, takes on Cinders And Ashes again and the way John Quinn's horse won that day suggests he'll come out on top again. However, Nicky Henderson's exciting Darlan is thrown into the mix this time, but all his runs to date have been on quicker ground and the fact connections have pulled him out of a few races due to soft ground already this term then we'll not only have to see if he does run, but if he does will he be as good in the conditions?
Onto Thursday and it's the final day of BBC racing coverage for the foreseeable future as their cameras head to Chepstow and the Coral Welsh National. It goes without saying that in what is set to be very soft ground then staying will be the order of the day. Teaforthree will be hoping to give local trainer Rebecca Curtis a famous win in the race, and after two runs already this season should be spot-on. Add in that he seems to love it here at the Welsh track - 2 wins & 2 place finishes, from 4 runs - then if Tom Scudamore get him into a nice jumping rhythm then he does seem to have plenty in his favour.
However, the horse that appeals to me here is Giles Cross. Yes, he's up 8lbs from his runner-up finish in this race 12 months ago, but the first two pulled well clear of the rest that day and, more importantly, with ideal conditions (won 3 times in heavy ground) and that he's gone well fresh in the past suggests with 4 (or even 5 places if you shop around) up for grabs he rates a solid each-way play.
As we move into Friday we'll hopefully get a chance to chance to see the very exciting Flemenstar take on Sir Des Champs again in the Lexus Chase over at Leopardstown. Round one went to Flemenstar in the John Durkan Memorial earlier this month, but with that being Sir Des Champs first run of the season and over this longer trip then many will feel that the Mullins horse can reverse the form. For me, it's a 'no bet' race as you really can make a case for either, plus with the likes of First Lieutenant, Sizing Europe and Hidden Cyclone all still entered at this stage then it's certainly not a 2 horse race either.
One thing, however, we can be sure of is this race will give us plenty more Cheltenham Gold Cup clues - especially as three of the last 10 Gold Cup winners also won this prize before going onto Cheltenham glory, while we'll also know if the exciting Flemenstar does stay this longer trip - if he does we'll be in for a crackerjack of race come March.
Happy Christmas and New Year!
Follow Richard here: