King George VI Chase: 'Christmas starts when Christmas is over' for Ruby Walsh

By Cornelius LysaghtBBC horse racing correspondent
Ruby Walsh
Walsh is hoping to improve on his record-breaking form in the King George VI Chase
King George VI Chase
Venue: Kempton Park Date: Saturday 26 December Time: 15:10 GMT
Coverage: Commentary on BBC Radio 5 live

As sporting professionals juggle commitments on and off the field of play during the busy Christmas period, jockey Ruby Walsh jokes about what his three young daughters are looking forward to most.

While Walsh will be making plans to improve on his record-breaking run of success in the King George VI Chase - achieved between 2006 and 2011 with five-time winner Kauto Star - Isabelle, six, Elsa, four, and 18-month-old Gemma are sure to have other things on their minds.

"The Christmas tree went up on the first of January, that's what Christmas is like in our house," he said.

"It's a magical time of year when you have kids, but in racing, definitely as a jockey, Christmas starts when Christmas is over.

"I always enjoyed the presents Kauto Star gave me, and now I wouldn't mind Vautour doing the same for me."

Along with fellow Irish-trained contender Don Cossack, Vautour, scintillating winner of the Novices' Chase at the Cheltenham Festival in March, heads a particularly regal-looking King George field.

And though Walsh, 36, who makes a flying visit to Kempton before spending the rest of the holiday at home in Ireland for the Leopardstown Festival, has seen too many false dawns to get too excited - in public anyway - he clearly rates the six-year-old very highly indeed.

Kauto Star
Walsh won the King George VI Chase five times riding Kauto Star between 2006 and 2011

Perhaps, it is said, loftily enough to believe this latest Willie Mullins-trained star could be "the new Kauto".

Prior to retirement in 2012, Kauto Star, who died after suffering injuries incurred in a freak accident in his paddock in June, galloped to victory in 16 races at jump racing's Grade One level, a total that included two Cheltenham Gold Cups as well as the quintet of King George wins.

"I thought Vautour was very special in Cheltenham last year [season]," said Walsh, whose body language after the finishing line spoke volumes for the level of his delight.

"I thought it was a good race, with good yardsticks behind us.

"I just loved the way from the top of the hill he upped the ante. Off the bend he went again, quickened to the last and maintained the momentum all the way to the winning post."

Seemingly choosing his words carefully, Ireland's champion jump jockey in 10 of the last 17 seasons, and the rider of a string of equine stars during that time, added: "I thought… I thought it was brilliant.

"Now he has to step up, but, look, we think he has the potential and I guess he has to mix with the big boys at some stage, so on Boxing Day it'll be boom or bust, won't it?"

Vautour travelled to Britain for his only race since Cheltenham when not entirely convincing in a chase around the right-handed circuit at Ascot in November.

That day his tendency to jump to the left, opening the possibility of losing ground on his rivals, met with criticism, but not from his rider.

"He's always jumped to one side," said Walsh. "If you are going left-handed he jumps a fraction right, and if you are going right-handed he jumps a fraction left - I don't know why.

"I think he's just idle, but when the pressure was on over the last two [fences] he was straight as a gun barrel. It was his first run of the season and I was pretty happy with it."

In contrast, Walsh's mount in the Christmas Hurdle, the Mullins-trained Faugheen, the winner in 2014 and subsequently an outstanding Champion Hurdler, attempts to bounce back from a first defeat on his initial run of the campaign.

Don Cossack being ridden by Tony McCoy
Don Cossack is the highest rated jumper in the field

That day, at Punchestown, another member of the prolific County Carlow-based Mullins academy, Nichols Canyon, outpointed the much-hailed seven-year-old, but a retrieval mission is now anticipated, and he is odds-on favourite.

"Faugheen was just probably rusty on the day," said his jockey. "I think we should see a sharper, more improved horse hopefully in Kempton.

"I haven't lost faith anyway. I'd like to think that I somehow got it wrong [at Punchestown] and the horse is still amazing."

Despite the absence of injury-hit Cheltenham Gold Cup champion Coneygree from the King George field, the 65th staging of jump racing's mid-season steeplechasing championship still bursts with quality.

Don Cossack is the highest rated jumper in these islands and has breezed to two victories on both of his runs this season; Cue Card, looking to make it fourth time lucky after a King George runners-up spot and two fifth places, has looked rejuvenated of late; Silviniaco Conti seeks a hat-trick of wins in the race which speaks for itself; the 'flying' grey Smad Place took Newbury's Hennessy Gold Cup in style and sparks memories of King George legend Desert Orchid; and Al Ferof impressed at Huntingdon.

Back to Ruby Walsh as he relishes the prospect of guiding Vautour around the 3-mile, 18-fence, right-handed Kempton course.

He said: "He strikes me as the ideal type. He has the pace, I think he'll stay [the distance], he's usually a good jumper.

"But it's a very good race with Cue Card, Don Cossack, Silviniaco Conti to name but a few - there'll be no hiding place. It should be great."