AFTER a day of high drama at Punchestown, jumping fans were asking themselves last night whether they had seen the last of veteran chaser Kauto Star.
The 11-year-old appeared to be facing retirement after being pulled up at the rear of the field in a dramatic running of the Guinness Gold Cup, won by the 20/1 outsider Follow The Plan.
In the early stages Ruby Walsh seemed perfectly happy with the dual Gold Cup winner, positioning him in behind the leaders. Then, Walsh took the gelding to the outside in the back straight and, with one ominous tap of the whip, it became obvious that Kauto Star was running on empty. He dropped tamely away before being pulled up before the fourth-last.
Kauto Star was not distressed and was led back in by owner Clive Smith.
There have been numerous references to Kauto Star's advancing years from both trainer Paul Nicholls and Smith in the past 12 months, and before the Cheltenham Gold Cup both expressed the view that it might be the final time he ran in the race.
With the exception of when he has fallen or unseated, Kauto Star had never before finished outside of the first three, but it appears a succession of hard races have now taken their toll.
Nicholls, though, didn't want to be drawn on the implications of the abject display.
"I said to (partner) Georgie before the race that I didn't care where he finished as long as he came back safe and sound, and after he jumped three or four it was obvious where he would finish,'' he said.
"I'd done things a bit differently with him this year and had him fine-tuned for Cheltenham, and then might have been a bit easy with him before this. But I'm not going to make any rash decisions. It's hard to judge on one run, but if he came back in the autumn and ran once more like that then obviously we would retire him."
While the favourite's submission overshadowed Follow The Plan's victory for trainer Oliver McKiernan and jockey Tom Doyle, the €96,000 contest proved an unsatisfactory spectacle for punters. Kauto Star's fellow British challenger Nacarat trailed in a long way last of four finishers, and the Hennessy Gold Cup hero Kempes pulled up, having never landed a blow.
As the fancied horses capitulated one by one, Roberto Goldback came through to lead turning in. That one was still a length in front at the final fence, but a bad blunder there proved costly, with rider Robbie Power catapulted out of the saddle.
While Follow the Plan was almost a length down as they took the last, the result was far from certain before Roberto Goldback's exit.
As it was, Follow The Plan -- third behind Nacarat at Aintree last time -- was left to inherit a healthy lead, one that he maintained by 11 lengths from Vic Venturi at the line. Vic Venturi's Dessie Hughes stablemate Rare Bob plugged on for third.
Follow The Plan's unlikely triumph was his second at this level, the first coming in the two-mile novice chase at Leopardstown in December 2008.
Rathcoole-based McKiernan said of his eight-year-old: "Follow The Plan was suited by the fast gallop today as he failed to settle at Aintree. We were hoping he wouldn't be out of his depth, and he's finished for the season now. He has had some leg trouble in the past, so hopefully he'll be okay."
Of the fortuitous nature of the win, McKiernan added: "I'm not sure who'd have won, but it was going to be a good battle anyway."
Colin Bowe also recorded a landmark success when the mare Askanna ran out a decisive victor of the Grade Two novice hurdle. The €26,000 prize was his 15th win of the season.
The other Graded race on the card, the Betchronicle.com Champion Bumper, saw Willie Mullins' Lovethehigherlaw prevail by a short-head under his son Patrick after a ding-dong battle with the favourite Waheeb.
Mullins revealed that the classy son of Presenting will go hurdling next season. The champion trainer went on to complete a double as Walsh got off the mark for the Festival on Scotsirish in the following handicap chase -- capitalising on the fall of stablemate Apt Approach at the last.
Earlier, Street Entertainer provided David Pipe with a debut success on Irish soil under Tony McCoy, who turned 37 yesterday.