Nowadays known, for sponsorship purposes, as the 32Red Winter Festival, the King George VI Chase Meeting at Kempton Park has been a hugely popular fixture for many years and, according to one recent estimate, accounts for 20% of the entire annual attendance at the Sunbury-on-Thames course. The King George VI Chase was inaugurated in February, 1937, in honour of the new British monarch, King George VI, who unexpectedly succeeded to the throne following the abdication of his brother, King Edward VIII, the previous December. Consequently, the race was run just twice prior to the outbreak of World War II but, on its return in 1947, was moved to its traditional Boxing Day date and has provided essential festive season viewing ever since.
The King George VI Chase, a Grade 1 steeplechase run over 3 miles and open to horses aged four years and upwards, is second only to the Cheltenham Gold Cup in terms of prestige and, over the years, has been won by some of the finest staying ‘chasers in the history of National Hunt racing. The roll of honour includes Arkle, Wayward Lad (three times), Burrough Hill Lad, Desert Orchid (four times) and, of course, Kauto Star (five times).
Of course, the King George VI Chase is just the highlight of the Boxing Day card, which also includes the Grade 1 Christmas Hurdle and the Grade 1 Kauto Star Novices’ Chase, while day two of the 32Red Winter Festival, on December 27, also features significant races in the form of the Wayward Lad Novices’ Chase and the Desert Orchid Chase, both Grade 2 events run over the minimum distance of 2 miles.
The Christmas Hurdle, sponsored by online gambling operator Unibet, is not only a prestigious and valuable contest in its own right but, despite being run on a practically flat, right-handed course, quite unlike the New Course at Cheltenham, has proved a bona fide trial for the Champion Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival. All in all, five horses that have won the Christmas Hurdle in its current guise – Lanzarote in 1973, Dawn Run in 1983, Kribensis in 1989, Faugheen in 2014 and Buveur D’Air in 2017 – went on to win the most prestigious event over the smaller obstacles in the British National Hunt calendar the following March. The 2016 winner, Yanworth, was sent off 2/1 favourite for the Champion Hurdle in 2017, but could only plug on to finish a never dangerous seventh and was subsequently disqualified after testing positive for the banned anti-inflammatory drug triamcinolone acetonide.