RUBY WALSH remains hopeful that the horse which has already carried him to two Gold Cup victories will recover in time for the March 16 showpiece at Cheltenham.
Trainer Paul Nicholls revealed yesterday that Kauto Star was only "50-50" to line up for the Gold Cup after taking a heavy fall on the schooling ground last week.
"It is two weeks away yet," said Walsh. "A lot can happen in 24 hours in a horse's life, let alone two weeks."
The eight-time champion jockey has enjoyed a remarkable association with Paul Nicholls' exceptional chaser, winning 17 races -- 14 of which were Grade Ones -- on him since they first combined to score in a Newbury novice chase in December 2004.
Speaking about the fall which Kauto Star suffered last Friday morning, Walsh revealed: "We were schooling, it was pretty routine and he was in great form but unfortunately he miscalculated going towards the last jump and fell quite heavily.
"He has probably been around that school 1,000 times. It is unfortunate and it is a worry, but it is what it is.
"Horses fall, that is part of racing. Unfortunately it is not great timing but it happened. I didn't see him after. I am only the jockey. The people at Ditcheat (Nicholls' yard) look after him.
"Kauto has cantered every day since the fall but they just don't think he is right. A lot will depend on the next 10 days. If he is right he will run, if he is not he won't. If he does I will ride him and I will be confident."
Third behind Long Run in the 2011 Gold Cup, the immensely popular 12-year-old looked on the verge of retirement when subsequently pulled up at the Punchestown Festival in May.
However, he has recaptured much of his old spark under Walsh this term, thrashing his Cheltenham conqueror in sensational style in the Betfair Chase at Haydock in November, before inflicting a similar defeat on him to land a record fifth King George VI Chase at Kempton on St Stephen's Day.
With the score standing at two apiece between the veteran campaigner and his Nicky Henderson-trained nemesis, the March 16 Grade One had all the makings of a thrilling decider. Sadly, that clash is now in jeopardy after Nicholls' bombshell yesterday.
"Kauto took a tumble when Ruby schooled him at the end of last week," Nicholls reported. "I say tumble, but in truth it was a pretty awful fall. He has had the best veterinary and physiotherapy care possible but we hoped that he would be showing more improvement by now.
"He is still cantering each day, but I can assure you right now that Kauto Star won't be going anywhere near Cheltenham unless we are all convinced that he is 110pc right.
"Even if there is the slightest doubt in our minds, then he stays at home. No question. We will do what is best for the horse. Always have, always will. End of story."
Nicholls (pictured right) added, however: "He is a hard so-and-so too -- you learn to be when your best mate is Denman -- and it wouldn't surprise me in the slightest if he was back firing on all cylinders at home before Cheltenham, and went on to beat Long Run for a third time this season. But at this stage his participation does hang in the balance."
Bookmakers reacted to the news by slashing Long Run's odds for back-to-back glory to as low as evens from 9/4, with Kauto Star eased to 9/2 from 7/2.
Should Kauto Star fail to feature, Walsh would likely switch to Quel Esprit instead. Willie Mullins' grey maintained his unbeaten record in completed starts over fences when sluicing up in the Hennessy Gold Cup at Leopardstown last month, and was yesterday trimmed to as low as 10/1 from a high of 16/1 to become the first Irish-trained winner of the race since War Of Attrition in 2006.