Christmas and sport go hand in hand. That is most certainly the case with horse racing where the Boxing Day fixtures are amongst the most anticipated and traditional in the entire sport.
Kempton Park is the host of the biggest meeting of all with a host of high class races including the Grade 1 race that everyone wants to win: the King George VI Chase.
King George VI Chase Day: Saturday
|12:40||Novices’ Hurdle||Class 2||2m|
|1:15||Novices’ Limited Handicap Chase||Class 3||2m4½f|
|1:50||Kauto Star Novices’ Chase||Grade 1||3m|
|2:25||Christmas Hurdle||Grade 1||2m|
|3:00||King George VI Chase||Grade 1||3m|
|3:35||Handicap Hurdle||Class 3||2m5f|
Desert Orchid Chase Day (Sunday)
|12:45||Introductory Juvenile Hurdle||Class 2||2m|
|1:20||Wayward Lad Novices’ Chase||Grade 2||2m|
|1:55||Ladbrokes Mares’ Handicap Hurdle||Class 2||3m½f|
|2:30||Desert Orchid Chase||Grade 2||2m|
|3:05||Ladbrokes Handicap Chase||Class 2||3m|
|3:40||Ladbrokes Handicap Hurdle||Class 3||2m|
About the Meeting
The Christmas period is a real bonanza for sports lovers, and racing fans certainly aren’t left out. The pick of the lot on the equine front over the holiday period is this meeting, as Kempton Park lays on the most festive of festivals. For many the big race of the King George VI Chase is now firmly part of the Boxing Day routine, right up there with the left-over turkey and yet another mince pie.
One of the greatest chase contests of the season is undoubtedly the main course, but there’s a lot more to this meeting besides, including a couple of races named in honour of two of the all-time greats of the game a classy Grade 1 Hurdle and a clutch of handicapping action. Overall this is a real post-Christmas cracker of a meeting.
King George VI Chase
For many this meeting really begins and ends with the headline event. That is perhaps understandable as this three mile Grade 1 contest for four year olds and up is one of the most truly historic races under either code of the entire season. Many a legend of the jumping game has safely negotiated the 18 fences of the course on their way into the history books over the years, including the likes of Mill House, Arkle, Wayward Lad, Desert Orchid, One Man and of course five-time hero, Kauto Star.
With excellent prize money on offer – £250,000 in 2018 – this race will continue to attract the very best chasers in the game. Another race to have attracted a number of multiple winners in the past, it is the appeal of seeing those old favourites return for another crack at the prize which plays a large part in the enduring appeal of this fantastic race.
Kauto Star’s sublime performances will live long in the memory as the Paul Nicholls-trained stead won in 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2011. Desert Orchid’s four wins from 1986 to 1990 also caught the public’s imagination, while the back-to-back victories for Silviniaco Conti in 2013 and 2014 gave Paul Nicholls yet more success in this race.
While this race is open to runners from the age of four, to date not a single four year old has managed to win. To be fair, it’s extremely rare for a four year old to be entered into the race. There has only ever been one five year old winner, Manicou in 1950. A few pensioners have had success at the other end of the age scale though. Two of the aforementioned superstars, Desert Orchid and Kauto Star, won as 11 year olds, but you have to go back to 1937 to find the oldest winner: Southern Hero who was 12 years old when creaking to victory.
Other Key Races
Kauto Star Novices’ Chase
Having won the King George VI Chase on no fewer than five occasions, if there’s one horse who deserves to have a race at this meeting named in his honour, it is undoubtedly the Paul Nicholls-trained legend, Kauto Star. Formerly known as the Feltham Novices’ Chase, this 3m Grade 1 contest, open to novice chasers aged four and older, was renamed to pay tribute to one of the greatest chasers in a generation in 2012.
Kauto Star was of course famously the first horse to ever regain his Cheltenham Gold Cup crown having lost it. Fittingly this event has proved to be a stepping stone towards future heroics in the Cheltenham showpiece, with both 2009 winner Long Run and 2014 champ Coneygree going on to land the Prestbury Park big one.
It’s not all about the chasers on Boxing Day though, with the classiest hurdlers in the game also being given their chance to shine in this Grade 1 contest held over two miles. Speed over the obstacles is the name of the game in this event for hurdlers aged four and older, which was first run in its current guise back in 1969.
One feature of this race over the years has been that if a horse has shown they have what it takes to land the prize once, then they may well do so again, with the contest featuring seven dual winners up to and including Faugheen’s second success in 2015. Attracting the real cream of the crop from this division, previous winners, Lanzarote, Dawn Run, Kribenis, Faugheen and Buveur D’air all also won the Champion Hurdle itself over the course of their careers.
Desert Orchid Chase
While Desert Orchid didn’t quite manage to win the King George VI five times, he did rack up four successes between 1986 and 1990, and everyone’s favourite grey also gets a race named in his honour. Acting as the centrepiece on Day 2 of the meeting, this Grade 2 chase open to runners aged four and older was introduced to the card in 2006, shortly after the death of that grand old warrior of a horse.
Champion chasers, Special Tiara, Sire de Grugy, and of course the incomparable Sprinter Sacre have all taken this since its inauguration, giving some idea as to the class of horse it often takes to prevail.
Introduced in 1937 and named after the monarch at the time, the King George VI Chase, around which this whole meeting is built, took a break during the war years but returned in 1947. It was in this year that the race was first run on Boxing Day, and it has remained in situ ever since rapidly becoming an integral part of the horse racing fabric. The quality of the meeting has only increased over the years with the Boxing Day Card – featuring three Grade 1’s – in particular being one of the most anticipated single days of racing of the season.
That inaugural running of the King George VI Chase remains in the record books – as of 2018 – with the 12 year old, Southern Hero, still the oldest ever winner in the history of the race. That’s a benchmark which will be pretty tough to break in the modern, increasingly competitive racing world, but there is one record which will never be taken away from this meeting. That came in 2015 when Tea For Two came home in front in the Kauto Star Novices Chase, making jockey Lizzie Kelly the first female rider ever to win a Grade One contest in Britain. Just one of many unforgettable moments to take place here over the years, and there will no doubt be plenty more to come.
A Complete History of the Kempton Winter Festival
Christmas Day is the traditional time for opening presents but every year Kempton Park hands us a belated gift of their own in the form of the Winter Festival. Run on the 26th & 27th of December, this festive meeting is one of the most important on the National Hunt calendar, with Boxing Day’s King George VI one of the most illustrious chases around.
Kempton has held two days of racing at this time of year for decades but the idea of the ‘Winter Festival’ is more of a recent concept. Although hard to pinpoint its first appearance, what we do know more about is the history of the races that form this much loved National Hunt meeting and how the festival slowly developed over the years.
1937 – King George VI Chase founded
Just two months after King George VI began his reign, Kempton Park paid tribute to the monarch in the form of a new race. Winner of the inaugural renewal, 12-year-old Southern Hero, remains the oldest champion the event has seen. It wasn’t much of a fitting royal tribute to begin with though as only four horses contested the opening two renewals before the race was put on hold due to World War II.
As British forces used Kempton racecourse as a prisoner-of-war camp, there was no running of the chase between 1939 and 1946. After making its return in 1947, the King George VI Chase moved from its previous slot in February to Boxing Day, where it has largely remained ever since.
1969 – Christmas arrives
A two mile hurdle had taken place at Kempton on Boxing Day earlier in the 1960s but only during the final year of the decade was the Christmas Hurdle born. Originally the Kempton Park Handicap Hurdle, the new race emerged following two successive cancellations in 1967 and 68.
1970 – King George cancelled again
The 1960s had been a turbulent time in the history of the King George VI Chase with four cancellations during the decade. In 1961, 1962 and 1968, frost led to the abandonment of the race while in 1967 foot-and-mouth restrictions led to the same outcome. A new decade failed to bring in a positive change as in 1970 snow forced officials to cancel the showpiece event for the fifth time in just a 10 year period.
1979 – Birds Nest handed the win
Although Birds Nest was a temperamental horse with a tendency to veer left under pressure, it was not him who was penalised in this year’s running of the Christmas Hurdle. The stewards instead punished Celtic Ryde following an enquiry, demoting him from first to second with Birds Nest subsequently declared the winner. While a big blow to take for connections of Celtic Ryde, the four-year-old was able to win the race the following year.
1981 – Frost returns
Having enjoyed 10 frost-free December meetings, the ice cold grip soon returned, forcing the cancellation of the 1981 festival. All races ended up being cancelled with none of them rearranged to a different date or location. This stands as the last year in which we failed to see the running of the King George.
1990 – Orchid makes it four
Wayward Lad’s record as the most successful horse in the King George didn’t last long as Desert Orchid went one better just five years after the former’s triple triumph. The fourth and final win for the David Elsworth-trained horse came in 1990 and how he made light work of it. The 9/4 favourite strolled to a 12 length win during what proved to be his final Grade 1 success. He did attempt to make it five on his final career appearance 12 months later but fell three from the line.
1995 – King George spared
Snow and frost led to the cancellation of the Winter Festival but organisers were able to find a new host for the King George. The race was added to Sandown’s card on 6th January and One Man, trained by Gordon Richards, produced the goods at the contingency venue. By also winning the following renewal at Kempton, he became the first horse to win the King George at two separate courses. He also stands as the only horse to win the race in the same calendar year.
1999 – Wayward Lad absent
Having been part of the Kempton schedule during he 1980s and 90s, the Wayward Lad Novices’ Chase finds itself suddenly dropped. The minimum distance race, named after three-time King George hero Wayward Lad, didn’t feature at all on the National Hunt calendar but its period in the dark didn’t last long. In 2000 it returned with aplomb and five years later it moved up from a Class B contest to Grade 2.
2001 – Christmas Hurdle moved
As part of a festival reshuffle, organisers brought the Christmas Hurdle forward a day so that it joined the King George as part of Boxing Day racing.
2005 – Sandown steps in
Due to development work taking place at Kempton, mainly the installation of an all-weather floodlit course, the Winter Festival moved to Sandown situated just a few miles away. Only once did the two-day meet need to find a temporary home though as the construction work took just 11 months to complete.
2006 – Desert Orchid Chase introduced
In order to honour the death of everyone’s favourite grey, Desert Orchid, who had passed away just a few weeks earlier, organisers at Kempton Park introduced this chase on 27th December. They also had the ashes of the four time King George champion scattered on the racecourse before the event’s inaugural running. Making way for the new event on the National Hunt calendar was the Castleford Chase, formerly a Grade 2 chase but now a handicap affair at Wetherby.
2010 – Winter weather strikes again
Frost far more severe than expected led to the opening day of the Winter Festival being postponed. Temperatures in the early hours of Boxing Day reached -7C and things were little warmer when the sun rose. Initially Clerk of the Course Barney Clifford had hoped the King George could take place the following day but he later admitted defeat stating that there was no chance of the ground thawing in time.
Most scheduled races failed to feature as a result but new dates were found for the King George V and the Christmas Hurdle. The pair took place on 15th January 2011, handing Kauto Star the chance to win his fifth King George title. The postponement perhaps ended up working against the 4-7 favourite though as he only managed to finish third on the rearranged date.
2011 – Kauto stars in the record books
After the previous year’s disappointment, Kauto Star bounced back to secure an unprecedented fifth King George win, making him the outright most successful horse in the race. Nicky Henderson’s Long Run set off as the evens favourite but he left himself with too much work to do during the run-in.
Ruby Walsh, who had ridden Kauto Star to glory on the previous four occasions, was again on the mount and put in a truly faultless display. He too entered the record books as the leading King George jockey, beating the record previously set by Richard Dunwoody.
2013 – BHA confirms name change
A year after Kauto Star had made it a stunning five wins in the King George VI Chase, officials at Kempton added the horse’s name to the beginning of the Feltham Novices’ Chase. The change hadn’t received permanent approval but this followed in July 2013 with the race officially change to the Kauto Star Novices’ Chase.
2015 – Kelly scores Grade One win
Lizzie Kelly makes history as she became the first female jockey to win a Group One race. The then 22-year-old did so on the back of regular acquaintance Tea For Two in the Kauto Star Novices’ Chase. Previously the pair had enjoyed a good amount of success together but the Boxing Day win topped anything either had accomplished before.
2017 – Kempton under threat
In January 2017 it was announced that the Jockey Club was investigating selling Kempton Park. Under proposed plans the valuable land, just 15 miles from the centre of London, would be redeveloped as housing. The Jockey Club claimed they would be able to invest £500m into British racing but fans of the Winter Festival and in particular the King George, were aghast.
The fixture’s most famous race would probably relocate to Sandown but for many Boxing Day, Kempton and the King George VI Chase are as linked as Christmas and turkey. Thankfully, for now at least, it seems such plans have been shelved but it would be amazing were this issue not to come up again in the future.
2017 – Buveur d’Air secures second jewel in crown
The Triple Crown of Hurdling, which between 2006 and 2010 carried a £1,000,000 bonus, includes the Fighting Fifth Hurdle, the Christmas Hurdle and the Champion Hurdle. In 2017 Buveur d’Air became the sixth horse of the century to win the first two courtesy of his Boxing Day win but unlike the rest he later produced the goods at Cheltenham too. In doing so he became our first Triple Crown (of hurdling) champion since Kribensis who managed the feat in the 1989-90 season.
2018 – Altior shows more love for Kempton
Regular attendee of the Winter Festival, Altior, scored his most emphatic triumph yet during the festive meeting. Winning by 13 lengths on his Kempton debut on Boxing Day 2015, he won by an even more emphatic 18 lengths in the Wayward Lad Stakes the following year. Not done there however, the truly outstanding gelding finished 19 lengths clear of the field in the 2018 running of the Desert Orchid Chase. For years to come, the Nicky Henderson-trained horse will be remembered as one of the legends of the Winter Festival.