Nicholls rejects notion that his Star is waning
TO many, his performance on Saturday had a poignant, unmistakable quality of abdication. Yesterday, however, connections of Kauto Star were clinging stubbornly to the belief that he could yet restore his dominion at Cheltenham in March.
It is difficult to review events at Kempton without suggesting a lack of deference for either the winner, or the beaten favourite. Long Run, after all, has now confirmed himself a legitimate champion in his own right. But it is not just past glories that keep Kauto Star at the top of the agenda today.
There is also the inescapable fact that many of his admirers will feel something between unease and alarm on learning that his owner, Clive Smith, and trainer, Paul Nicholls, are determined to persevere with him.
Seeking an unprecedented fifth success in the William Hill King George VI Chase, Kauto Star finished 19 lengths third to Long Run, looking rather laboured throughout and lucky to get away with a shuddering blunder at the second last.
His trainer's first instinct was that the horse, contrary to the impression he had formed at home, was now past his prime. Yesterday, however, Nicholls revealed that Kauto Star had bled from the nostrils on his return to Somerset. The likelihood is that he burst a blood vessel during the race.
He has never done so before, but in itself this would by no means imply increasing infirmity at the age of 11. On the contrary, it gives him obvious grounds for exoneration. Nicholls speculates that it may have happened after the mistake, "which meant he had to dig deep to get home". In his Betfair blog, Nicholls was remarkably upbeat as he announced that Kauto Star would be trained for a fifth appearance in the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
"There is no talk of retirement," he said. "I have just spoken to Clive. We agreed that yesterday now gives us a bit of a challenge. Hopefully we and, most importantly, the horse will rise to it. He will be prepared for a tilt at a third Gold Cup victory -- different ground, different track, different day -- and we would like to aim him for a third victory at Down Royal in the autumn, too. As long as he is enjoying his racing and running well, then he will continue.
"Yesterday was undoubtedly a big disappointment. He was never travelling or jumping with any real fluency, but it wasn't as if he ran a poor race. Without his blunder at the second last, he probably would have been a fair second to a very good horse.
"But that clearly wasn't his best form. I think he was A1 going into the race, so there are no excuses. So it is up to me and my team here at Ditcheat to get him right for Cheltenham."
The first thing to say is that Nicholls will never adore another horse the way he does this one. He would not risk even one hair in Kauto Star's tail if he sensed an unconscionable risk to his welfare. He is palpably aware, moreover, that Kauto Star has become very precious to many others, too. Hence his astonishing patience with what must have seemed an interminable series of interviews immediately after the race. Make no mistake, he was heartbroken, but he did not betray the faintest hint of self-pity or withdrawal.
His stable is not matching its usual, prolific form just now and it may yet prove that Kauto Star can retrieve his peak. Many would nonetheless consider it reckless to treat this performance in isolation. The moment he came off the bridle, as far as four fences from home, positive interpretations of his two previous starts suddenly acquired a fanciful air.
Yes, he had produced an efficient display on his return at Down Royal in November, but the bare facts are that he had to be ridden out pretty firmly to beat an unproven stayer by four lengths. And anyone who briefly feared that he would never get back to his feet, after that ghastly fall in the Gold Cup will now be reviewing his exhibition that day as unnervingly similar to Saturday's.
Nobody would presume to tell Nicholls and Smith what is in the best interests of Kauto Star, but for many the stakes are now becoming uncomfortably high. The bottom line is that the horse was already two years into his racing career when Long Run was foaled.
No judgement will be more clinically detached than that of the bookmakers, and Kauto Star is now out to 12/1 for the Gold Cup with William Hill, who make Imperial Commander 7/2 favourite to retain the trophy, with Long Run 7/1.
Whether the latter will ever prove as effective round Cheltenham remains to be seen. He made a huge impression on his first start in Britain last season, over the King George course and distance, but has looked somewhat less convincing on two visits to Cheltenham since.
It may prove that the sweat and toil of his connections -- whose patrician aura should not deceive anyone -- has yielded sufficient dividends in his jumping to make Cheltenham less of an issue. That is for his next start. For now it is proper simply to salute the Corinthian throwback who rides him, Sam Waley-Cohen, and the trainer who also saddled Riverside Theatre to finish second, as well as four other winners on the card.
The King George had been an incongruous omission on Nicky Henderson's CV, which is one of the most distinguished in jump racing history. He has, moreover, suddenly revived the possibility of a challenge for the trainers' championship, having had 20 winners from his last 47 runners.
Nicholls does retain a lead of some £250,000, but Seven Barrows is the most dependably fertile of stables at the Festival in March. And Henderson's other winners included Binocular, which bounced back to form in the second big race rescheduled from St Stephen's Day, and is now 5/2 favourite with the sponsors to defend the Stan James Champion Hurdle.
Henderson said: "AP (McCoy) gave him a brave, positive ride. We knew there was only going to be one pacemaker and there was a danger it was going to be a sprint. We have not ridden him that way before. He keeps beating these sort of hurdlers and we know we're getting to where we want to be."
The remainder of the undercard was dominated by Henderson who, apart from Long Run and Binocular, also collected with Irish Independent Arkle Trophy hope Nadiya De La Vega, Chablais and Polyfast. All three were ridden by the in-form Barry Geraghty, who had chased home stablemate Long Run in the King George aboard Riverside Theatre.
After a great day's racing at least Henderson's champion, Binocular, demonstrably remains in his pomp. How many really believe, hand on heart, that the same might still be true of Kauto Star? (© Independent News Service)