Kauto Star's date with destiny
The noble equine head bouncing along a Somerset lane in our direction belongs to the best National Hunt horse since Desert Orchid, and arguably Arkle.
A gleam of vindication fills the eye of his trainer, Paul Nicholls, as the hours tick towards St Stephen's Day at Kempton Park.
This is Kauto Star, imperiously leading a group of Nicholls' horses which are due to pound up a steep all-weather gallop beside the champion trainer's yard in the village of Ditcheat in cheese-making country.
Also visible is Master Minded, which will join Kauto Star in facing down the reigning champion, Long Run, in the King George VI Chase.
But why vindication? Because those who shouted at Nicholls on social websites to retire the most aristocratic horse of his generation have fallen silent. The old stager crushed the new No 1, Long Run, in the Betfair Chase at Haydock Park and attempts to win a record fifth King George as the three kings of the winter game convene in London's furthest suburbs.
"He might be 11, but he ain't 11," Nicholls says later in his office, and you see what he means.
Across the yard another famous equine snout protrudes from a wooden stable frame. Kauto Star's rival and next-door neighbour, Denman, was forced into retirement by a tendon injury but is expected to accompany his old companion to Kempton on Monday, like a cornerman to a boxer.
Denman is a non-combatant but Kauto Star fights on despite being pulled up at Punchestown in May, when his career seemed to move into shadow.
Mike Cattermole, the respected broadcaster, journalist and racecourse announcer, is among those to have felt Nicholls' anger for suggesting it was time to send Kauto off to a meadow.
"I fired into Mike," Nicholls recalls, smiling. "I said, 'He pays your wages in many ways. And Mike, you don't know. Just accord me the respect of knowing when to retire him.'
"It's not greed. It annoys me when people tell you how to do your job. The money's irrelevant. That race at Haydock (the Betfair Chase) could have been worth 10 grand -- I wouldn't care. The win was great for Kauto Star and great for racing."
Nicholls says he would never contemplate running even the grandest ageing horse if visual evidence told him the tank was empty.
"That would never, ever happen. While they're in a good place, they can run."
This week brought the 20th anniversary of his first winner. On the wall of his office is a plaque marking the 2,000th, scored this autumn.
Leaving school with £200, Nicholls was only £10,000 to the good at the end of his riding career but impressed the landlord of Manor Farm stables, Paul Barber, and began conquering the training profession with the same restless energy as Alex Ferguson, who is among his patrons.
Nicholls is always switched on. The reward is a yard full of four-legged luminaries, led by Kauto Star, Master Minded and the invincible staying hurdler, Big Buck's, of whom Nicholls says: "There's not the opposition for him, but ability wise he's as good as any of them."
But all eyes now fall on Kempton, scene of a rare Corinthian gesture by owner Clive Smith, who pits his two best horses against each other.
The script was that Denman and Kauto Star had been usurped by the younger Long Run at Kempton and Cheltenham. All media outlets reported the end of an era.
As we watch his two contenders ascend the hill side by side, though, Nicholls talks of the void on the other side.
"If Kauto's retired he's not going to have the style of life and enjoyment he gets now," he says, leaning on a fence.
"He absolutely thrives on what he does. See More Business (an earlier stable star) is in a field now, at 23, and he hasn't got half the quality of life these horses have.
"We tried to let him go hunting and he nearly killed Marcus Armytage one day. It just didn't work. In two years, after they stop, they're forgotten."
There is no shaking Nicholls' belief that Kauto Star is still in his prime.
"His Haydock run was his best ever there. He's won it four times, he broke the course record the other day and was 10 seconds faster than any of his three previous Betfair wins."
Understandably he savours his victory over the social-network experts.
"Twitter and Facebook are great for getting information out but some of the abuse you get is incredible," he says.
"Some people haven't got a clue. Even on the Racing Post website you get someone saying, 'Oh they're greedy running him again, they've squeezed the lemon dry.' Suddenly it's gone the other way now. It's 'Oh, you've got to run him in the King George.' It's a complete U-turn."
To leave Desert Orchid behind in King George history, Kauto Star must beat not only Long Run but also his intermittently brilliant stablemate.
Nicholls says: "I've trained Master Minded for the race since the minute he came in from that field in mid-July. He's probably 15 kilos lighter than he was at Ascot and 25 lighter than Aintree (last term). He's a lot tighter and fitter. Everything's gone right and he's got a lot of plusses.
"There's a big issue of whether he'll stay three miles, but at Ascot last time he tanked past Somersby and pulled himself up. With improvement to come he's got to be right on the premises.
"He was very impressive last year at Aintree. He's a King George winner waiting to happen, but he's got two big obstacles in front of him in Long Run and Kauto Star."
The empathy between Nicholls and his finest chaser is replicated by the strong union between horse and jockey. In last year's delayed King George the Kauto Star ride passed from the injured Ruby Walsh to AP McCoy, but Walsh has had a lot more time to learn the horse's idiosyncrasies.
"I used to think all good jockeys would get on with him. AP is a star, no doubt about that, but I know now that he goes better for Ruby than anyone else," Nicholls says.
"I watched that King George again the other night. I wouldn't publicly criticise any jockey -- McCoy especially -- but he (Kauto Star) wasn't enjoying it. He was never jumping, never going, and got stuffed. I'd think Ruby is a crucial part of him. The horse believes in him and vice versa."
We watch Kauto Star and Master Minded chug up the hill. "Kauto and Denman never worked together at home, but these two have always gone along together," Nicholls says.
"Look at him (Kauto), he's always got his ears pricked, he loves what he's doing."
But Long Run is still out there, sharper for his Haydock run. "He's had two hard races now though, hasn't he?"
Nicholls probes, mischievously. "OK, he's going to improve, they've got their eye on the bigger picture. But you're going to say that if you get beat, aren't you? I thought he looked pretty straight that day.
"He had a harder race than Kauto did in the end, and Kauto bounces back from them, so he's got a bit to prove. And he didn't jump great.
"In last year's Gold Cup I think maybe Kauto and Denman shot themselves in the foot. Denman was aggressive, which had Kauto on the limit the whole way.
"They almost set it up for Long Run. He out-stayed them up the hill. But I'm under no illusions that he's the one to beat. We're the underdog this time; he's the champion."
This is great psychological jousting in a sport that tends not to go in for inter-stable sparring. Not only that, Kauto Star could still gallop into another autumn.
"When he won the King George for the fourth time two years ago he came back to the winner's enclosure like he hadn't had a race. He's almost in that form, that same health.
"If he runs a really nice race I would say he's got to run in the Gold Cup. There's no reason why he couldn't have a nice summer and run in the Betfair Chase again next autumn.
"That would be getting towards his swansong. He's not 13, he's 11, he has the best of everything and he's in a great place with himself. He's a racehorse."
This is the kind of boldness and energy that has carried Nicholls to the top. Kauto Star is still up there, too, on that misty hill. (© Daily Telegraph, London)