After their contrasting rehearsals at Newbury on Saturday, Kauto Star and Well Chief are both 6-4 favourite with Coral for their respective targets at Cheltenham next month. But while neither will meet a more talented rival, both illustrate the precarious link between ability and fulfilment in steeplechasing.
Well Chief, who had been idle for nearly two years through injury, is plainly prone to the physical hazards that menace all jumpers. The vulnerability in Kauto Star, however, is almost as uncommon as his flair. By replicating the last-fence bungle that had disfigured his performance at Kempton on Boxing Day, Kauto Star greatly intensified the debate over his prospects in next month's Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup. In contrast to Kempton, where he was bravely responding to a searching challenge, his jumping should not have been put under the remotest pressure in the Aon Chase. And indeed, until that final fence, he had been adroit. But his clumsy leap there reminded everyone that he has made only one visit to Cheltenham, and ended up on his knees after just three fences. Even the assistance of the great Ruby Walsh cannot make 6-4 a particularly attractive price about him even getting round in the Gold Cup, where stiffer fences, opposition and track will all conspire against him.
As at Kempton, Kauto Star lost little momentum and, while he scrambled home by only a neck, Walsh could not get after him until squeezing between L'Ami and the elbow on the run-in. Despite giving 10lb in a sprint finish, he was never in danger of defeat. Yet perhaps the most revealing observation afterwards came from Walsh, who noted that Kauto Star had been very keen "and was probably getting a bit empty" at the last. For the gravest doubt about this horse remains a neglected one. Race by race, the needle must be getting nearer the red. When a horse produces consecutive top-class performances, all season long, he is far more likely to approach a trough than a new peak. Nobody should underestimate the role of his trainer if Kauto Star does win the Gold Cup.
Paul Nicholls had faced no quibbling earlier in the afternoon after Denman maintained his standing amongst an exciting crop of novices. If he goes on to prove superior to My Way De Solzen and Cailin Alainn, Nicholls may himself be housing the biggest threat to Kauto Star next winter.
But if his own stable's future remains bright, Well Chief provided an ominous measure of the way his long-standing Somerset rivals are regrouping. Martin Pipe had surrendered his licence to his son, David, during Well Chief's absence but there was no mistaking the seamless continuity in the Totepool Game Spirit Chase.
In his youth Well Chief locked horns with Moscow Flyer and Azertyuiop, and no such monsters await him in the Queen Mother Champion Chase. Certainly he radiated class here, though the same applied to his jockey, Timmy Murphy, who shielded him from the reckless gallop set by his chief rival. Well Chief cruised past the tiring Ashley Brook in the straight - and Pipe Jr will have been as relieved to see him avoid a hard race as he was on finding him sound yesterday morning. As for Voy Por Ustedes, he faced a gruelling task giving 10lb on soft ground and may even have helped his Cheltenham prospects by unseating Robert Thornton at halfway.
Not every compass takes its bearings exclusively from Cheltenham, of course, and the real star of the weekend was surely Beef Or Salmon, who has never felt remotely at home there. On Irish soil, however, he is something else and, blinkered for the first time, he managed an improbable success in the Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup at Leopardstown - his 10th at Grade One level. In reeling in The Listener, who was coasting clear on the home turn, it would be wrong to say that Beef Or Salmon finished strongly. For some reason the grey faltered and allowed the veteran back into the race. Still, you have to admire his appetite and Michael Hourigan, his trainer, will persevere towards another Gold Cup.
Nowadays bookmakers dismiss Beef Or Salmon at 33-1, and remain more interested in The Listener at 14-1. He certainly has the ability, jumping with far more scope than Kauto Star for one. But those who bet bare-knuckled left Leopardstown reassured they have their Festival banker in Aran Concerto, whose easy success confirmed him as 5-2 favourite with Ladbrokes for the Ballymore Properties Novices' Hurdle.
Nap: Just Bond (Wolverhampton 4.00)
NB: Ella Woodcock (Wolverhampton 5.05)