Five Christmas crackers to savour next week

Will connections of Cue Card be celebrating again this year?

PICTURE: Getty Images Five Christmas crackers to savour next week By Mark Scully 5:00PM 23 DEC 2016

FOR those who do not follow racing, the peculiar days between Christmas and the New Year can be a tough slog but for the rest of us, they are the stuff of life itself as National Hunt heroes from both sides of the Irish Sea come out to play. Here are five festive feasts to look forward to:

32Red King George VI Chase (Grade 1)
Kempton, Monday

This famous race boasts an honour roll littered with greats of the game and this year's renewal provides the stage for a clash befitting of that illustrious history.

Not since Kauto Star and Denman locked horns has a match captured the imagination quite like the upcoming battle between the reigning champion Cue Card and his impossibly promising stablemate Thistlecrack.

Like Kauto Star and Denman, the pair are stablemates with different owners, which only adds to the spice and while the race lacks depth, this clash more than makes up for it.

Thistlecrack's promise appears limitless at this stage but he has never faced an opponent like this. At eight, he may only be two years Cue Card's junior but the star staying hurdler is conceding bags of experience to arguably the most popular horse in training, who has been mixing it at this level for a long time.

Are you Cue Card or are you Thistlecrack? Arguments are commonplace over Christmas and that very question could well be the source of some passionate exchanges over the turkey this year.

Native River

Native River (right) showed bags of stamina in the Hennessy

PICTURE: Getty Images

Coral Welsh Grand National Handicap Chase (Grade 3)
Chepstow, Tuesday

It is not only at Kempton where Colin Tizzard will be hoping to make his presence felt. A day after two of his stable's leading lights fight it out in the King George another, Henessy hero Native River, will bid for glory at Chepstow.

The six-year-old was backed like defeat was out of the question at Newbury last month and many punters will again be pinning their hopes on him taking advantage of being officially 4lb well in.

It is not all about Native River, though. Carole's Destrier pushed him all the way at Newbury and is back for another crack, while Mountainous will be bidding to win the race for a historic third time.

With April's Scottish National victor Vicente also in the mix, this will be a true test for Native River.

Lexus Chase (Grade 1)
Leopardstown, Wednesday

Native River may be en route to proving his Timico Cheltenham Gold Cup credentials but one horse about whom there can be no doubt in that regard is Djakadam, runner-up in the Cheltenham showpiece in each of the last two years.

His owners, Rich and Susannah Ricci, have won plenty of the sport's top prizes but not this one and they will be hoping he can rectify that.

Standing in Djakadam's way will be Valseur Lido, out to show he can be considered among the best staying chasers in training, as well as fellow Gigginstown stars and winners of the two previous renewals Road To Riches and Don Poli.

Ruby Walsh has won the race twice, with Denman in 2007 and Tidal Bay in 2012.

The New One (Richard Johnson) leads

The New One (right) is seeking a first Christmas Hurdle

PICTURE: Edward Whitaker (racingpost.com/photos)

32Red.com Christmas Hurdle (Grade 1)
Kempton, Monday

Despite seemingly having been around forever, The New One is only eight and showed he is not ready to be ushered off to the retirement home just yet with victory in the International Hurdle at Cheltenham this month.

That performance convinced some he might yet bag that elusive Champion Hurdle later in the season but prior to that is the not insignificant matter of this £100,000 contest.

He has tried twice before to win it but finished second both times, first to My Tent Or Yours in 2013 and then Faugheen 12 months ago. The former is back again but looks to have been overtaken by The New One these days.

Yanworth is the young pretender and would seem to be open to improvement, while Ch'Tibello, younger still, represents Dan and Harry Skelton, who are to be written off at your peril.

Nonetheless, The New One may never have a better chance to add this contest to his CV.

32Red.com Wayward Lad Novices' Chase (Grade 2)
Kempton, Tuesday

Nicky Henderson has won this race plenty of times, seven to be precise, and most recently with a pair called Sprinter Sacre and Simonsig.

Those two turned out to be alright and there are similar hopes surrounding Altior, the Supreme Novices' Hurdle hero who has made a foot-perfect start to his chasing career.

There will be more compelling betting heats over the festive period but few races will contain a horse quite as good as Altior, with this contest the first real test of his ability over the larger obstacles.

In his stablemte Buveur D'Air, who brushed aside the talented Cloudy Dream in the fog at Haydock this month, he faces a rival also full of promise, while the likes of Some Plan and Marracudja are no mugs.

It would be unfair to expect Altior to be the next Sprinter Sacre but every racing legend has to start somewhere.

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