Rejuvenated Kauto to reign supreme
Another showdown between the peerless Kauto Star and his youthful nemesis Long Run was all that any racing fan wanted for Christmas.
In this afternoon's tantalising William Hill King George VI Chase at Kempton, that is exactly what we have got. It is the fourth time that these two exceptional operators have met, but the terms of engagement are different on this occasion.
A year ago, there was still an air of invincibility about Kauto Star at Kempton, and he started at odds of 4/7 to make history by winning the Grade One for a fifth time.
However, Long Run stole the show with a devastating 12-length rout, a superiority that he reinforced under the weight of expectation in the Cheltenham Gold Cup in March.
For all of Kauto Star's heroics in defeat that day, he didn't have the legs of his main rival, which at six-years-old returned the youngest winner of the race in 48 years.
At Haydock in November, then, few expected the new order to be disrupted, but Kauto Star's mesmerising front-running exhibition left Nicky Henderson's youngster floundering in his wake.
Handled with brilliant conviction by Ruby Walsh, he planted more than a seed of doubt in the minds of those who felt his time had forever passed.
Thus, the water is muddied. For many, including the layers, Long Run simply wasn't as finely tuned as Kauto Star in November and the balance will be redressed today.
For others, including Paul Nicholls, there is a genuine belief that, despite being a week shy of his 12th birthday, Kauto Star is back to close to his imperious best.
Sure, he was trained to the minute for Haydock, but the feeling is that there might still be more in him, that last term's failings are attributable to something other than age.
Could it be as black and white as that? Quite possibly. All things being equal, these are the two best horses in the race. Master Minded is unlikely to see out the three-mile trip, with Somersby maybe the most appealing each-way option at around 12/1.
This, though, has all the makings of a definitive clash of the generations. Long Run is the obvious choice, maybe even the logical one, but Gold Cups can leave a mark.
We know exactly how robust Kauto Star's constitution is, and Nicholls knows his horse. If the champion trainer didn't think his pride and joy could stomach another battle so soon after the last, he would have opted to wait for Cheltenham.
He didn't, so this corner is sticking with Kauto Star to even up one record, and set another. The drive for five might have only been delayed.
In the Feltham Novices' Chase, a Grade One that Long Run won when it was last run in 2009, Henderson is fancied to collect with Bobs Worth. The exciting Grands Crus heads the market, with Nicholls' Silviniaco Conti another serious contender.
Grands Crus, in particular, is going to take some stopping, but Kempton doesn't suit every horse, and an enhanced emphasis on speed may not suit.
The Cheltenham Festival winner Bobs Worth, unbeaten in six, has scored here twice already. At Newbury last time, he overcame an inadequate trip to reel in Cue Card on his fencing debut under Barry Geraghty. Crucially, he is a horse that always seems to find enough, and the return to three miles will be to his advantage now.
In the Christmas Hurdle, the up-and-comin Rock On Ruby is worth a speculative venture, as is Knockara Beau in the Rowland Meyrick at Wetherby. A thorough stayer, that one hinted at a return to form when second at Cheltenham last time.
Best Bet: Bobs Worth