Kauto Star set for showdown
On both sides of the Irish Sea, the battle lines for Cheltenham in March are being drawn.
At Kempton on Boxing Day, Kauto Star and Long Run, the two best staying chasers in Britain, will face off for the fourth time in an eight-strong field for the King George VI Chase.
And at Leopardstown two days later Down Royal Festival feature winner Quito De La Roque and Rubi Light, Ireland's most progressive putative Gold Cup challengers, head the 13 entries for the Lexus Chase.
Only once in the five times he has contested the King George has Kauto Star had fewer rivals in the mid-season Grade 1 showpiece.
That was back in 2007, when he cruised home from Our Vic and five others.
Monday's field may yet be pruned — if the ground, currently forecast to be good to soft, deteriorates markedly, Captain Chris will not take part.
Kauto Star already had an unprecedented four successive King Georges on his CV when beaten into third behind Long Run last season, a position he also filled behind the same horse in the Gold Cup before turning the tables at Haydock last month.
On that occasion, Kauto Star looked back to his imperious best, even at the age of 11.
“Kauto is a stayer who has pace,” said trainer Paul Nicholls. “And (stablemate) Master Minded is a speed horse who will, we hope, stay. It's going to be fascinating.”