Those here yesterday saw the future start to unroll as two five-year-olds of infinite promise picked up furred mantles worn recently by more celebrated stablemates. With victory in the Tingle Creek Chase, the Paul Nicholls-trained Kauto Star announced his status as a worthy successor to his sidelined stablemate Azertyuiop in the senior two-mile division, and by winning the Henry VIII Novices' Chase Racing Demon brought, after the death of Best Mate, some much-needed cheer to Henrietta Knight's yard.
Kauto Star missed most of his novice season last year, including a tilt at the youngsters' Cheltenham crown, the Arkle Trophy, after hurting himself in a fall in January. Yesterday was only his fourth run over fences and his first in the top grade and, under Mick Fitzgerald, he came through both tests like a much older hand to earn his place alongside the reigning king, Moscow Flyer, at the top of the Queen Mother Champion Chase lists.
The obstacles here, particularly the three close-spaced fences alongside the railway in the back straight, put a premium on jumping, whether flown at speed on fast ground or crossed more conservatively out of mud, as yesterday. Kauto Star joined issue with the trailblazing Ashley Brook at the first and two lion-hunted impala could not have leapt them more sure-footedly.
The 5-2 joint favourites left Oneway labouring on the final sweep to the straight and Fitzgerald's body language was always more positive than his rival Tony McCoy's. Sure enough, Kauto Star jumped into a decisive lead at the Pond Fence, three out, and cleared away. And although he drifted markedly left-handed on the testing final haul up the hill, allowing Ashley Brook to get back to within a length and a half, defeat was never an option. "This is a proper horse," said a delighted Nicholls. "My only worry beforehand was that he would idle if he was in front for a while, for he is inexperienced. But he'll be better left-handed, and on better ground, and with a faster pace and more company."
That sounds like a Festival recipe and in some lists Kauto Star, owned by the businessman Clive Smith, has actually supplanted Moscow Flyer, more than twice his age and absent from yesterday's contests because of a respiratory infection, as favourite for the Cheltenham crown. His only definite date before that is the Game Spirit Chase at Newbury in February. "Maybe we'll find another run before then," said Nicholls, "but I won't be too concerned if we don't."
Racing Demon, who carries the colours of Camilla Radford, is an appropriate baton-lifter at West Lockinge Farm, for he won at Exeter on the day that Best Mate died there. "He has raised everyone's spirits," said Knight, "and we are very grateful to him."
There may be further cause for gratitude, for Racing Demon's four-length defeat of Hoo La Baloo in yesterday's Grade Two contest, after a beautifully judged ride from Timmy Murphy, marked him as the best of the home-trained two-mile novices and a credible candidate for the Arkle Trophy, for which he is second market choice behind the Irish-trained Accordion Etoile. "I've not had an Arkle runner yet," said Knight. "It was the foot-and-mouth year when Matey should have run in it."
Comparisons may be odorous, but they are inevitable, and the two horses did come from the same source, the nursery of the Irish dealer Tom Costello. "They're different individuals," added Knight. "This one is wirier, more hyperactive, and probably tougher in constitution than Matey. But like him, he will stay further in time." Knight's husband Terry Biddlecombe concurs, and yesterday invested £5 at 33-1 for the 2007 Gold Cup on their rising stable star.
At Fairyhouse today the focus switches to top-flight hurdlers, five of whom turn out for the contest named for Ireland's triple champion Hatton's Grace. The principals are last year's winner and runner-up Solerina and Brave Inca, with the intriguing sub-plot of top Flat jockey Johnny Murtagh making his debut in a Grade One jumps race on Golden Cross. On the same card, this year's Grand National hero Hedgehunter starts his usual road back to Aintree, with a run over the smaller obstacles in the three-mile handicap.
BETS OF THE DAY
Donovan (Kelso 1.50) is off the mark over fences and still well-in on his best hurdles form.
It's a numbers game, and four furlongs taken away might equal victory for You Do The Math (Kelso 2.50).