KAUTO STAR so bestrides proceedings at Kempton tomorrow that many will culpably overlook the presence, on the same stage, of a horse which arrives -- unlike the one at the top of the bill -- as a reigning Cheltenham champion.
Binocular, moreover, will be accompanied in the William Hill Christmas Hurdle not only by his closest challenger at the Festival last March, Khyber Kim, but also by a rival never more likely to beat them both than now.
Starluck travels through his races with great flair, but his fuel tank is not the deepest and the climb to the post at Cheltenham seems destined always to expose him in elite company.
The sharp, flat track at Kempton is another story, however, and his trainer yesterday acknowledged that this rescheduled prize is, in effect, Starluck's Champion Hurdle.
"It's probably our best chance of winning a Grade One with this horse," Alan Fleming said. "So we're all out."
Having ultimately faded into fifth in the Champion, Starluck again coasted into contention on his return at Newbury in November, before just being outstayed by Peddlers Cross. It was six lengths back to Binocular, whose main priority is, naturally, the defence of his Cheltenham crown.
"To be fair to our horse, he galloped all the way to the line at Newbury," Fleming noted. "By all accounts the winner is very good, and Starluck should come on a fair bit for the run."
Beaten only in a photo for this race last season, Starluck may have had an excuse for flattening out in the Champion.
"He was lame a day or two after the race," Fleming said. "If the ground was good, there might be a chance he'll go back there. We'll see. But Kempton seems to suit him and we've had this race in mind for a long time. I'd like to think that he's in his prime now, and that this could be his year."
Win, lose or draw, the Blessington native will always cherish Starluck, which won a juvenile hurdle as his first runner after Andrew Wates hired him to supervise the Surrey stables made famous, back in 1996, by the Grand National success of Rough Quest.
Now in his third season here, Fleming is under no illusions, albeit he recently saddled an impressive bumper winner at Southwell in Oscara Dara.
"We're a very small yard, and that's not going to change -- we've only 15 stables," he said. "So you just try to do the best you can. Oscara Dara could be a horse to look forward to. He works well, but surprised us the way he did that. He'll go to Ascot next week."
Forpadydeplasterer will be one of eight chasers taking on Kauto Star in the King George VI Chase at Kempton.
Tom Cooper's 2009 Arkle winner will be stepping up to three miles for the first time.
Kauto Star will be joined by stablemate The Nightingale, also a winner at Down Royal this campaign and the subject of sustained support in the ante-post market this week in anticipation of his favoured soft ground.
Nicky Henderson will have two fancied runners -- the much-hyped Long Run and Riverside Theatre, owned by actor James Nesbitt.
Long Run will be returning to the scene of his most impressive performance in England, which came in the Feltham Novices' Chase last Christmas. Riverside Theatre also likes the Sunbury venue and is unbeaten in four starts there.
Madison Du Berlais, last season's runner-up, will represent David Pipe and will be ridden by Danny Cook in the absence of the injured Tom Scudamore.
Charlie Hall Chase winner Nacarat, fourth last season, will be ridden by Paddy Brennan for Tom George, while Jonjo O'Neill has declared Albertas Run. Philip Hobbs' Planet Of Sound, the Punchestown Gold Cup winner, will also take his chance. (© Independent News Service)