Long Run to usher Kauto off the stage
The potential significance of this afternoon's Betfair Chase at Haydock was driven home during the week when Kauto Star's owner admitted that it could be the former champion's last race.
By some way the finest chaser of his generation, the dual Cheltenham Gold Cup winner's triumph at Down Royal 12 months ago remains his sole victory in almost two years. He is now rising 12 years of age and, for all that he played a sensational part in that spellbinding Gold Cup last March, he is no longer a genuine contender.
That Paul Nicholls is giving Kauto Star the opportunity to disprove that theory is typical of the man; there isn't another trainer in the business who would have campaigned the French import so audaciously and with such exquisite judgment.
Granted, Kauto Star's exertions behind Long Run in March had taken their toll when Ruby Walsh had to pull him up at Punchestown in May, but Nicholls has shown what can be achieved with top-class veterans in the past, most memorably when saddling See More Business to record three valuable wins at 12 and 13 years of age.
Still, those victories came in long-distance handicaps, a fate that is unlikely to befall Kauto Star.
To that end, then, Clive Smith's suggestion that his 14-time Grade One winner would need to turn in a big performance to justify prolonging the inevitable was to be expected.
With Nicholls' team in rude health, Kauto Star could conceivably produce yet another inspirational display but, if he is the story later on, it is unlikely to be for winning this Grade One for what would be a remarkable fourth time.
That should be the domain of the younger brigade, and this is a serious bunch of pretenders, with Long Run announcing himself a worthy champion courtesy of stunning triumphs in the King George and Gold Cup last term. Right now, Nicky Henderson's athletic six-year-old sets the standard, and an incredibly high one at that.
Weird Al and Diamond Harry are the pick of the remainder, with the latter another immensely promising prospect. Absent since his commanding Hennessy Gold Cup win in 2010, Nick Williams' representative is a likeable sort with a touch of class.
In the day's big handicap hurdle at the Liverpool venue, Sunnyhillboy gets the nod under Jonjo O'Neill's useful young claimer Maurice Linehan. Third in the Irish Grand National at Easter, the Old Vic eight-year-old hasn't run over flights since sluicing up off a mark of 133 at Aintree in 2009.
That was the fourth time in five starts that he had collected, so he is a fascinating contender off 142 in this, despite the competitive nature of the 20-runner three-miler. He ran off a rating of 139 at Fairyhouse, which means that, when you take Linehan's 10lb allowance into account, his effective mark of 132 here is very favourable.
At Ascot, Master Minded is the star attraction as he bids for successive victories in the Amlin 1965 Chase. Nicholls' eight-year-old blew away inferior opposition a year ago, before then going on to record three Grade One triumphs.
Having struggled to reach the heights of old the previous season, there is no doubt that he is once again a real force but, at odds-on, he is worth opposing here with Somersby.
Something of a 'nearly horse' for the past couple of campaigns, Henrietta Knight's charge turned in a career-best effort to run the favourite to a short-head in the Victor Chandler Chase at the Berkshire track in January.
While Somersby failed to go on from that at Cheltenham or Aintree, he really looked the part when cantering up from the current Hennessy favourite Aiteen Thirtythree on his reappearance at Kempton. If he can build on that now, he should go very close.
Also at Ascot, Oscar Whisky should win the Coral Hurdle. Barry Geraghty's mount has to give weight all round, but that shouldn't be a problem in this company.
Best Bet: Oscar Whisky