Think of all the immortal sporting moments which might never have happened if things had been slightly different.
Carlos Alberto runs on to Pele's pass in the 85th minute of the 1970 World Cup final and his shot comes back off the inside of the post. Gareth Edwards puts a foot in touch as he dives for the line at the end of the incredible Barbarians move against the All Blacks in 1973. Packie Bonner doesn't produce a miracle save from Gary Lineker at the end of the Ireland-England European Championship match and Stuttgart turns out to be not a great memory but a good memory.
And think of the immortal occasions which never were. Istabraq's record-breaking fourth Champion Hurdle victory in a row, foiled by the foot-and-mouth outbreak of 2001. Kerry's five-in-a-row not coming to pass because Seamus Darby's shot dipped under rather than over the crossbar. Golden Cygnet's career as the greatest hurdler of all time never happening because he died tragically before it ever got going. All those great goals George Best didn't score because he never played in the top flight again after the age of 25.
This day next week we'll either be celebrating one of the great sporting moments or mourning one that got away. Because if Kauto Star manages to win his third Cheltenham Gold Cup on Friday, it might well be the greatest and most emotionally satisfying victory in the history of the Festival. And just to make things more dramatic still, it's not 100 per cent certain that the horse will even be in the race following a recent fall while being schooled at Paul Nicholls' yard. It will be tomorrow before we see white smoke, or otherwise, on that one, though the word is encouraging.
Kauto Star already has a place in the history books as the only horse to regain a Gold Cup when he added a win in 2009 to his initial triumph in 2007. In truth, that's not such a big deal when you set it beside Golden Miller's five-in-a-row or the hat-tricks of Cottage Rake, Arkle and Best Mate. But should he win another Gold Cup five years after his first one, we really are talking about something out of the ordinary.
You want to get an idea of how long ago March 2007 was? It was the month that the Irish economy boasted all-time record growth figures for the previous quarter, the high point of the boom. It was just a few weeks since a little known Chicago politician named Barack Obama had declared his intention to seek the Democratic Party nomination for president. And there was Kauto Star battling his way to a two-and-a-half-length victory over Exotic Dancer.
It's arguable that the horse has somewhat underachieved at Cheltenham. He has been the outstanding jumper of his generation and one of the greatest of all-time. His 16 Grade One race victories are an all-time record as are his seven consecutive seasons as a Grade One winner, his five King George VI Chase wins and the amount of prize money he's bagged. In the circumstances, he might have been expected to have won more than two Gold Cups.
But in 2008 he lost out to another indisputably great horse in Denman before gaining revenge the following year when he was perhaps at his peak, Timeform judging his 13-length victory to be the finest Gold Cup performance since Arkle. Odds on to make it three out of four in 2010, he suffered a recurrence of the dodgy jumping which had blighted his early career and fell at the fourth last, allowing Imperial Commander to create one of the biggest upsets of all-time. With Kauto Star on the floor and Denman in second, it was as though Ken Norton had jumped into the middle of the Thrilla in Manila to knock out both Ali and Frazier.
Last year's race looked like a farewell performance. Once more Kauto Star and Denman disputed things at the front but when Long Run moved past and pulled away from them after the second last we seemed to be seeing a last hurrah for the big two. Eleven lengths behind the winner in third place, Kauto Star received the kind of sentimental praise you give to a great performer who can't quite cut it anymore. That Long Run was the first six-year-old to win the race since Mill House in 1963 appeared to underline the fact that the future belonged to him. Kauto Star would win no third Gold Cup.
Yet at the time of writing the old campaigner is 4/1 second favourite, with Paddy Power, to do just that. How come? Because in November and December Kauto Star turned the world of jumping on its head, first handing Long Run an eight-length drubbing in the Betfair Chase at Haydock and then, on a memorable St Stephen's Day, having a length and a quarter to spare over his heir apparent as he became the first horse to win five King George VI Chases.
Long Run remains a short-priced favourite. He has youth on his side and there are genuine doubts about whether an ageing Kauto Star will have the legs to make a winning burst up the hill at Cheltenham. But it's far from Mission Impossible for Paul Nicholls' horse even if there are a couple of other contenders which threaten to spoil the party.
The prodigiously talented novice chaser Grands Crus will be bidding to revive memories of Desert Orchid in 1989 by providing the race with a first grey winner since then if he doesn't plump for the RSA Chase instead. And Burton Port looked immensely threatening when coming back from a 15-month lay-off to finish just half a length behind stablemate Long Run in last month's Denman Chase at Newbury. (It's testament to Kauto Star's longevity that his new rival is now winning races named after his old rival.)
However, it pans out this will surely be the final time we see Kauto Star at Cheltenham. A victory would probably confirm him as
the best chaser of all-time barring Arkle. Arkle, after all, had won three Gold cups by the age of nine when his career was ended by an injury in 1966. And, given that What A Myth, a horse regularly trounced by Arkle in his prime, was good enough to win the 1969 Gold Cup at the age of 12, chances are that Tom Dreaper's horse might have taken six on the trot had he stayed healthy.
What A Myth remains, along with 1951 winner Silver Fame, one of only two 12-year-olds to win the race, which shows just what a time-defying feat Kauto Star will be attempting on Friday. In fact, only two of the last 20 winners, Cool Ground in 1992 and Cool Dawn in 1998, have been over nine years old. There are myriad reasons why the sentimental victory might not come to pass.
One of the great feelings on the morning of a big match is the fantasies about victory which are already in your head. As you have a drink before the game or walk towards the ground you're thinking of just how wonderful it will be when the dream comes true. And when you're defeated nothing is harder to take than the thought of celebrations which are never to be.
That's how I feel right now about Cheltenham 2012. It'll be great of course but there's a possibility of it being the greatest. It all depends on what happens in the six and a half minutes or so after 20 past three on Friday afternoon.
Usually, Cheltenham is all about the Irish. This year it's all about Kauto.
Sunday Indo Sport