This was the day when the real Kauto Star stood up. As it happens, having fallen twice in five previous steeplechases, merely standing up was by no means a trivial ambition. But the low rainclouds at Aintree yesterday made it seem an injustice to suggest that the sky could be any kind of limit. Kauto Star confirmed himself a soaring, uninhibited talent, quite possibly without peer among British jumpers.
When he was last seen, rolling ignominiously before the dismayed Cheltenham crowds, they were entitled to wonder whether an impostor had been unmasked. After all, they had made him hot favourite for the Queen Mother Champion Chase after just four races over fences, in two of which he had been beaten. His clueless dive at the third fence seemed to confirm, at best, that he remained too innocent for such an assignment. At worst, all his early promise might have been fraudulent.
Such suspicions suddenly seem shameful. On his first appearance since, Kauto Star produced an exhibition of such unfettered class that he is no longer facing questions, but asking them. Having coasted home over two and a half miles in deteriorating ground, could his ultimate fulfilment beckon over three miles in the King George VI Chase? Or should he return to two miles?
After his runaway success in the Bonusprint Old Roan Chase, bookmakers were quoting him for everything short of the Tour de France. Even such a singular talent cannot be wholly indifferent to distance, so Paul Nicholls must make the right call. True, it is possible to quibble with the substance of what Kauto Star achieved yesterday: he faced only four rivals, the most competent of which want shorter distances.
But the fact remains that he got himself beaten off 149 first time out last season, whereas here, off 167, he was mocking his opponents long before their stamina became an issue. Settled fourth by Ruby Walsh, he soon found a rhythm and impatiently pulled himself into contention leaving the back straight. Leading before the last, he was being affectionately patted on the neck as soon as he landed but still drew 21 lengths clear of Armaturk.
Nicholls was saddling runners at his local track, Wincanton, but was awestruck by what he saw. "I was pleased for the horse," he emphasised. "He was always a talking horse last season but things went against him - he got injured at Exeter, and the ground went against him before Cheltenham. He then fell in the Champion Chase and was injured afterwards.
"So this will have done his confidence good. I have always suspected that farther would suit him, as he could just creep into the race, and the trip today suited him well. He could go for the Tingle Creek again, back over two miles, and then step up to three in the King George. But we will have to see: there's no point making plans at this stage."
A year previously, Nicholls had sent out both Star De Mohaison and Denman to win their first races of the season, and there was an ominous air of purpose to his team yesterday. Turko emulated Star De Mohaison with an assured debut over fences at Aintree, while Pepperoni Pete, a promising bumper horse last season, made a fine start over hurdles at Wincanton.
In contrast, Ireland's champion trainer is reconciling himself to the need to rest one of his best young jumpers for the entire season. Noel Meade said that his impressive Festival winner, Nicanor, has heat in a tendon.
Two perennials of the Irish scene were both back to dip their toes in the water, however - albeit in an unfamiliar guise. Beef Or Salmon finished second over hurdles at Fairyhouse on Saturday, and Hardy Eustace sixth in a Flat handicap at the Curragh yesterday. The dual Champion Hurdle winner returns to timber at Navan on 12 November, while Beef Or Salmon pursues War Of Attrition to Down Royal on 4 November. That is also Breeders' Cup day - the final day when the Flat champions can resist the jumpers' claims to centre stage.
The last Group One of the British season, the Racing Post Trophy, was won at Newbury on Saturday by Authorized, who started 25-1 after finishing third on his only previous start.
But Peter Chapple-Hyam's recommendation of a juvenile is more a matter of knowledge than faith, and this extraordinary trainer now has another candidate to join Dutch Art in the Classic picture next spring. It is just a pity that Alan Munro, who had been sharing Chapple-Hyam's renaissance, must now sit out a full year after the convulsion he suffered in the summer.
Another of Munro's most cherished rides, Sergeant Cecil, could not repeat his recent Group One breakthrough back at Longchamp yesterday. But Rod Millman, his trainer, could console himself that he ran as honestly as ever in the Prix Royal Oak - beaten barely a length in third behind Montare. "He just didn't get the gaps in the straight," Millman said. "He'll have his winter's rest now." Kauto Star ensures that we will not be short of distraction in the meantime.
Nap: Smokin Joe (Lingfield 4.20)
NB: Mitanni (Lingfield 2.50)Reuse content