WHILE Kauto Star had to settle for a ceremonial role in the King George VI Chase, his first appearance at Kempton in retirement coincided with the most gripping finish of recent times as his old foe Long Run claimed a dramatic second victory.
The pair ended with a one-all draw in their meetings in this race and it looked as if Sam Waley-Cohen's mount would have to settle for second again, until the amateur conjured one last effort to stick Long Run's neck past Captain Chris at the line.
Whether a professional would do better than Waley-Cohen on Long Run will always remain a matter of conjecture, and the 15/8 favourite did not jump well in the main, but horse and rider plumbed the very depths of their reserves through muddy conditions.
Waley-Cohen and Long Run have already provided a first Cheltenham Gold Cup in 2011 for his owner, the jockey's father Robert, and for trainer Nicky Henderson, who saddled a 76/1 four-timer on the card including the Grade One Christmas Hurdle.
The seven-year-old's reputation, however, looked to be fading with a third-placed finish in the last Gold Cup and a defeat to Silviniaco Conti on his comeback at Haydock, but that all looked forgotten as Waley-Cohen cruised towards the fifth from home.
He clouted that one, giving the front-running Champion Court renewed hope and allowing Captain Chris and Richard Johnson to sneak closer before mounting their own challenge in the straight.
Captain Chris jumped the last much better than Long Run, but sheer resolution saw the former champion regain his lead on the run-in.
"He was so brave," said Waley-Cohen. "I had to keep asking him – I asked him early and maybe I asked too much as he was tired, but so brave. This is his fifth year of competing at this level and he means an enormous amount to us. That was racing at its best for me. I can't put it into words. It's an honour and a privilege. Dad has had every opportunity to put someone else on the horse, but he has always been really good and said Long Run was my ride. I'd like to thank him more than anyone."
The outcome crowned another fabulous day for Henderson, whose four winners leave him hot favourite to relieve Nicholls of the trainers' championship. Coral promoted his Darlan to 5/1 joint-favourite with Hurricane Fly for the Champion Hurdle, from 8/1, after his devastating comeback in the Christmas Hurdle.
The JP McManus-owned gelding (3/1) travelled well and was driven out by Tony McCoy after the last to score by four and a half lengths from Raya Star, with Dodging Bullets back in third.
Henderson also picked up two races on the undercard. In the hands of Barry Geraghty, River Maigue (4/6 favourite) beat New Year's Eve by seven lengths in the novice hurdle, while Rajdhani Express (3/1 joint-favourite) carried the Long Run colours to a 34-length success in the novices' handicap chase to initiate a double for Waley-Cohen.
Grands Crus was an honourable third in the King George for David Pipe and Tom Scudamore, an alliance which earlier struck with another exciting grey, Dynaste, in the Kauto Star Feltham Novice Chase.
Tom Scudamore held up the 8/13 shot in the early stages before moving the six-year-old – now unbeaten in all his three starts over fences – into a more prominent spot.
Leading four out, Dynaste had the opposition at full stretch as he powered to a nine-length win over Hadrian's Approach to strengthen his claims for the RSA Chase.
"Tom gave him a great ride, so hopefully it's Cheltenham here we come," said Pipe. "He'll probably have one more run somewhere before."