Vautour to rival Kempton greats
Even those whose memories stretch back to the days of Arkle and Mill House will find it difficult to recall a time quite like now, when so many exceptional chasers are at, or approaching, their peak simultaneously.
Some big names may be missing from this afternoon's King George VI Chase at Kempton, most notably the injured Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Coneygree, but that still leaves four of the best to contest this festive highlight.
It's England's classy perennials Silviniaco Conti and Cue Card versus Ireland's champions-in-waiting Don Cossack and Vautour, backed up by a first-rate supporting cast which includes Smad Place, last month's sensational Hennessy Gold Cup winner, now likely to take on Coneygree's trail-blazing role.
As the winner of the last two King Georges, Silviniaco Conti sets the standard. Kempton is where he shines brightest, not the undulations of Cheltenham, and if he settles into the same jumping rhythm he did last year he may be difficult to dislodge.
Cue Card has been increasingly popular ever since his first Grade One success, the 2010 Cheltenham Festival Bumper (in which he thrashed one of today's rivals, Al Ferof) and a sixth top-level career victory for the now seasoned old pro would bring the house down, not to mention further raise hopes of netting a £1m sponsors' bonus for winning the Lancashire Chase-King George VI Chase-Cheltenham Gold Cup treble.
He has tried, and failed, to win this middle leg three times, going closest two years ago when patently outstayed by Silviniaco Conti.
But that was the old Cue Card. The new model, with a freed epiglottis following a wind operation, slammed his old rival by seven lengths in the Lancashire Chase at Haydock last month to edge 4-3 in front in their head-to-heads.
Paddy Brennan, his new regular partner, is unable to contain his excitement as he itches to team up again with a horse he regards as the best he has ridden, counting down to the main event like a child who can't wait for Christmas Day.
"Seven days, two hours, 41 minutes," he calculated before racing last Saturday. "I wouldn't swap mine for anything." Cue Card's trainer, Colin Tizzard, shares the thrill of anticipation, saying: "There will be no excuses this time."
But while Cue Card and Silviniaco Conti may still be able to replicate their best, the strong suspicion is that will not be quite good enough against such a formidable Irish challenge.
Don Cossack's Punchestown Gold Cup victory last April, when he beat Djakadam and Road To Riches more decisively than Coneygree had in the Cheltenham Gold Cup a month earlier, was the outstanding performance by a staying chaser last season. Equally imperious on his return to action, Gordon Elliott's eight-year-old is in his prime. Three miles on a right-handed track is perfect. This should be his day.
Unless, that is, there is a bona fide superstar up against him - and there might well be in the form of Willie Mullins' Vautour, after his stunning display in the JLT Chase at Cheltenham last March.
If this race were over two and a half miles, the issue would not be in doubt. But can such an enthusiastic galloper and exuberant jumper be as effective over three miles?
There were the same concerns surrounding Desert Orchid back in the late Eighties and he ended up winning this race so many times they buried his ashes at the course and built a life-size statue in his honour.
Kicking King, the last Irish-trained winner in 2005, was also considered a dubious stayer before the first of his two victories. Even Kauto Star was regarded more as a two-miler in his early days.
So though Don Cossack is the logical choice, a flick through the record books prepares for the real possibility that Vautour could make monkeys out of all the doubters.
Mullins is, as usual, relaxed and optimistic about Vautour's trip into the unknown, while also brushing aside concerns about a tendency to jump left at Ascot last month.
"That won't be an issue when he doesn't have to lead," the trainer said.
And for those who suppose that the Mullins operation will not be firing on absolutely all cylinders until the spring festivals come around, he added this ominous message: "I'm very happy with how the whole yard is at the moment." In other words, Don Cossack and the rest in the King George need to watch out.
The same may go for opponents of Mullins' Champion Hurdle winner Faugheen, who aims for a second Christmas Hurdle victory at Kempton after losing his unbeaten record last month, and the Supreme Novices' Hurdle winner Douvan continues his Arkle Trophy build-up in the Racing Post Chase at Leopardstown.