As the end to 2020 draws near we reflect on a year like no other. Early reports of a novel virus appearing in Wuhan province in China hardly made headline news at the start of this year.

How things have changed, and there are many things that have changed forever, and many lives mourned. Just a return to normality will be at the head of many Christmas prayers, along with grim remembrance of those departed.

But some things remain to remind us of the strength of human resilience and our great Sport of Kings continues to take our minds from the horrors of the past year, albeit under such draconian rules it feels a world away from the huge cheer that saw the flag go down at the start of the Supreme Novice’s Hurdle at Cheltenham back in March.

While we wish for better times, we have a packed schedule of National Hunt racing on both sides of the Irish Sea to look forward to from Boxing Day (or St Stephen’s Day) onwards, and here we preview just a pick of the highlights over the next week.

Though travel restrictions have muted some of the international appeal of the Christmas schedule the quality of the racing in store is still top class.

View from the final fence at Kempton... © John Light :: Geograph Britain  and Ireland
The final fence at Kempton: John Light: Geograph

Who can take on the mighty Epatante in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton after her commanding win in the Fighting Fifth at Newcastle last month. With more luck, or less bad luck to be precise, Evan Williams’ Silver Streak can give Nicky Henderson’s star a run for her money while it is always possible that Gary Moore’s Goshen can return to his scintillating form of last year after being diagnosed with a fibrillating heart.

On the busiest day of the year for National Hunt racing, stablemates Cyrname and Clan Des Obeaux battle it out in what looks a classic renewal of the feature, the King George VI Chase which now has a late supplement in Nicky Henderson’s Santini while also in the line up Colin Tizzard’s Lostintransaltion has another crack at this Grade 1 prize.

Over in Dublin, Leopardstown stages the first day of the four day Christmas Festival where the Racing Post Chase is the highlight on the card. The powerhouse stables of Gordon Elliott and Willie Mullins will square up for this Grade 1 race with the Cullentra handler running Felix Desjy while Willie Mullins sends out the improving Asterion Forlonge from his Closutton base.

Travel restrictions have limited Henry de Bromhead’s options with his Arkle victor, Put The Kettle On but the mare can feature against the boys on home soil in the Paddy’s Rewards Club Chase where her 7lb allowance could be vey useful. However, it also means that Monalee cannot take up the chance to run in the King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day and might have to take on stablemate Minella Indo in the Savills Chase on the third day of the Leopardstown Festival.

General view, Chepstow Racecourse © Ruth Sharville :: Geograph Britain and  Ireland
Chepstow: Ruth Sharville: Geograph

Back across the Irish Sea, Chepstow hosts the Welsh Grand National where Evan Williams Secret Reprieve has been well backed in to be ante post favourite after a commanding win here at the start of the month. Paul Nicholls looks to have a strong pair to send to the Monmouthshire track with Yala Enki heading the weights and last year’s runner up, Truckers Lodge back for another try. At bigger prices are Colin Tizzard’s Christmas In April and Venetia Williams’ Cloudy Glen who both have stamina in droves for this marathon event.

Over at Kempton, Altior will be looking to re-establish himself as the premier two mile chaser in the Desert Orchid Chase and with the long range forecast suggesting good ground looks very hard to oppose. Duc Des Genievres looks to be the main danger now based at Paul Nicholls’ Ditcheat stable while Alan King’s Sceau Royal, third in this a year ago behind Duc Des Genievres and the re-opposing Bun Doran rarely runs a bad race and can take place money.

File:Leopardstown Racecourse2-04.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
Leopardstown: Wikimedia Commons

The third day of the Leopardstown Festival features the Christmas Hurdle and the Savills Chase, both with Grade 1 status. The Christmas Hurdle can go to Matthew Smith’s stable star, Ronald Pump, who should be able to fight off the attentions of Henry de Bromhead’s Minella Melody.

The Savills Chase looks a red hot renewal this year with Henry de Bromhead’s Minella Indo a worthy ante post favourite after wins at Wexford and Navan and may well have improved even more from his near miss in the RSA Chase at the Cheltenham Festival where Champ collared him in the final half furlong. With Champ now unable to make it to Leopardstown from Nicky Henderson’s Seven Barrows base, Minella Indo can make amends for that last gasp defeat back in March.

On the concluding day of the Leopardstown meeting, in the Neville Hotels Novice Chase, look out for a great clash between Pencilfulloflead from Gordon Elliott’s County Meath base and Willie Mullins’ Monkfish, winner of the Albert Bartlett at the Cheltenham Festival in front of Latest Exhibition, Paul Nolan’s stable star who re-opposes here.

Abacadabras can add to his win in the Morgiana Hurdle last month on the final day’s card when featuring in the Grade 1 Matheson Hurdle. So close to taking the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival back in March, Abacadabras has continued to progress this season and should be too good for Henry de Bromhead’s Aspire Tower and Willie Mullins’ Saint Roi who came very close to heading him in the Morgiana.

The year should also not end without a nod to some of the outstanding memories of the year; Hollie Doyle’s remarkable achievements gaining the recognition they fully deserve when taking three Lesters at the Professional Jockeys Association Awards. 2020 also marked the retirement of some of the best horses seen on a racetrack in recent times, Enable, Pinatubo, Sottsass and Magical all spring straight to mind. Finally, in our thoughts, the sad loss of Pat Smullen, taken so young and so cruelly from his family.

This preview has been brought to you by our regular correspondent, Hector Steiff

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