After tomorrow's annual rituals, religious and secular, all ye racing faithful will gather at Kempton to observe the Boxing Day tradition that more often than not decides the staying chasing championship. And in this year's 56th King George VI Chase it seems a straight choice between following a star or opting for a white Christmas.
Kauto Star, the odds-on favourite, is the king in waiting. The upstanding white-blazed six-year-old, trained by the champion, Paul Nicholls, is unbeaten in three this season and has shown, by winning the three-mile Betfair Chase at Haydock and then the two-mile Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown, that he is that rare beau ideal, a stayer with sprinting speed.
The sheer class he exudes has lit up the season. For his rider, Ruby Walsh, one of the coolest, most natural horsemen among the jockeys' ranks, the mere thought of sitting on him induces a quickening heartbeat.
"He is thrilling," he said. "The power you feel, waiting on tap. You just have to give him one squeeze, and that's it.
"Very few horses can win a Grade One over three [miles] and then a Grade One over two. But it was more than that; it was the authority he had. He had them beat before the last and there was plenty left in the tank. At Haydock it took me a while to pull him up, and at Sandown, when a riderless horse came past him after the line, he took off again."
That Kauto Star has such a superior engine within his rather angular, bright bay frame is entirely appropriate. One of the other loves of his owner, Clive Smith, is vintage Lagondas, of which he owns a pair, and he likes his four-legged pride and joy's name to be pronounced to rhyme with auto.
Smith, too, feels the magic. His best-known horse previously was the brave Grand National runner-up Royal Auclair, but Kauto Star has been different from the moment he trounced a good rival, Foreman, on his British debut. "I have no background of horses," said Smith, "but I became attracted to the sport because of the spectacle and the beauty of the animals. You do become involved with them. They do such service for you, stir such emotions.
"I can still recall the real buzz I got that first time in my colours. He showed terrific speed as he went straight past Foreman, and you could see then that there was something extra-special there."
The Wentworth-based Smith, who has made his fortune from the development of golf courses in Surrey, trained as an accountant. With Kauto Star, the sums have more than added up, in the head as well as in the heart. The gelding had shown top-class form in his native France (his former trainer nicknamed him The Extra-Terrestrial because of his other-worldly talent) and was not cheap, costing Smith nearly £300,000.
He has already won back his purchase price, and should he add the King George to his Haydock win and then take the Cheltenham Gold Cup, the Grade One treble will bring a bonus of £1 million.
Such a feat, or even the promise of it if the second leg is safely secured on Tuesday, will take Kauto Star bounding over the fence that divides this sport from the wider public. It falls to few horses to do that; one who did, the four-time King George winner Desert Orchid, will be missing from the day he made his own for the first time in 20 years.
The great grey, who died last month, led the parade in the years since he ended his career with a fall in the 1991 King George. Since him, two more with snowy coats, One Man and Teeton Mill, have brought a whimsically seasonal touch to proceedings.
And Monet's Garden, the horse perceived as the one most likely to poop the Kauto Star party, is another Dessie lookalike. Or, more accurately, a One Man lookalike. The dappled Roselier eight-year-old is trained at Greystoke in Cumbria by Nicky Richards, whose late father, Gordon, sent One Man south 10 years ago to take the midwinter showpiece.
"Colour apart, the two are more than a bit similar to look at," said Richards, "though that is probably not too surprising as One Man's sire, Remainder Man, is the maternal grandsire of Monet's Garden. Their style of racing is much the same and, like One Man, Monet's Garden jumps very well."
Monet's Garden, owned by the Cheshire businessman David Yates, has had just one run this season, a defeat of top French chaser Mid Dancer at his local track, Carlisle, where he produced a metronomic gallop and series of leaps. He has never fallen, or even threatened to, in 15 runs; Kauto Star has been on the floor three times.
Though the grey Irish-bred has yet to tackle the King George trip over fences, he was formerly a high-class staying hurdler. "Three miles is his trip all right," said Richards, "and he'll be well suited by a track like Kempton."
The canny Cumbrian trainer is a realist, but there was a twinkle in his voice when he added: "From all accounts Kauto Star is a world-beater and the rest of us will be running for second place. But Monet's will be ready to do his best."
Seventy years ago, events beyond the control of racing's small world conspired to produce this invariably gripping contest round one of the country's fastest jump tracks. After Edward VIII ascended the throne in January 1936, those in charge at Kempton put in motion plans to honour him with the creation of a valuable Flat race the following year. When he announced his abdication in December the course executive decided that racing should be one of the first bodies to honour the unexpected new monarch. The first King George VI Chase was worth only £324 to the winner; Tuesday's hero will win some £120,000. And, possibly, immortality.
The thrill of Kauto: Anatomy of a special stayer with sprinting speed
Find a horse with the right attitude - a willingness to join in man's games allied to a competitive spirit - and the job is half done. Too-small eyes and ears (Kauto Star's are bold and generous) can indicate pigginess of character. And the head acts as a counterweight, ideally in proportion to the body.
This is the engine room, supplying push and power. A good length from the point of the hip to the hock (the equivalent of the human heel) is highly desirable, allowing the hind legs to swing under the body as they instigate each gallop stride.
A well-sloped shoulder, from the end blade of the scapula to where it joins the humerus, allows a pendulum-like swing to give liberty of action. The angle of the shoulder affects the set of the neck, another important element in light-footed balance.
Depth through the body, combined with a broad chest, indicates plenty of room for heart and lungs, the aerobic centre, within the ribcage. A thoroughbred's heart can weigh up to 15lb. At a guess, Kauto Star's will be near the upper end of the scale.
Like so many modern high-class chasers, Kauto Star hails from France. His sire, Village Star, was a very good Flat runner who stood as a jump stallion; his dam, Kauto Relka, did not race but comes from an established jumping family.
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