The weathervane above Kauto Star's stable, appropriately a hunter leaping a hedge, turned idly this way and that on a tranquil, shimmering morning in Mendip country. As if on cue, when the horse was led out and paraded in the sunshine that bathed Paul Nicholls's yard, the arrow drifted round and came to a halt halfway between north and west. It is amazing what the marketing men can arrange nowadays.
Few of the inane branding innovations so characteristic of modern life bear much scrutiny. Racegoers at Cheltenham today, for instance, are apparently attending the first day of The Open Meeting. And next weekend, at Haydock and then Aintree, they can go to the North West Masters.
One innovation, however, could hardly have greater substance. The winner of the Betfair Chase at Haydock on 18 November will earn a £1m bonus if he can add either the Stan James King George VI Chase or the Lexus Chase over Christmas, and then the Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup itself.
Nicholls admitted yesterday that he was not aware of the Betfair Million when he decided to aim Kauto Star at the Haydock race. "It's obviously a very nice incentive," the champion trainer said. "But whatever is right for him, whatever happens at Haydock, that's what we'll do. The horse comes first."
But it is this particular horse's habit of coming first that identifies him, at this stage, as the most eligible bonus candidate. He has already shown his mastery in the North West this season, an exuberant performance at Aintree last month confirming him the most exciting steeplechaser in Britain. It also opened up new horizons for a horse previously considered a two-mile specialist. Possibly it was inexperience that accounted for his hopeless plunge into the third fence when favourite for the Queen Mother Champion Chase in March, but an extra half-mile at Aintree certainly seemed to liberate Kauto Star.
"He stood off miles too far at Cheltenham," Nicholls recalled. "There's a school of thought that he jumped a shadow. Whether he was rushed or not, I don't know, but they certainly went flat out over the first three at Cheltenham, all downhill, and he didn't get into a rhythm. He settled and jumped so beautifully at Aintree, we're very keen to try him over three miles at Haydock. The way he can switch off, all he needs to do is put in a couple of good jumps and creep there. He'll only run over two miles again if the ground is very testing. Equally he might not run over three if it gets too heavy. Haydock will tell us more, but my gut feeling is that he will end up staying with no bother. And I feel there's less emphasis on stamina in the Gold Cup nowadays. The last two winners, War Of Attrition and Kicking King, both started off over fences at two miles."
Kauto Star will share the van to Haydock with Kicks For Free, winner of his first race over hurdles at Wincanton last weekend. "That was an ideal starting point and he'll get better with every run," Nicholls said.
"He'd compare very favourably with Noland, who ended up winning the Supreme Novices' Hurdle for us last season. But this horse has got chaser written all over him and I can't wait to see him over fences next season."
Noland himself is sidelined for the season, but Denman has already made a proficient start over fences and may run at Cheltenham tomorrow. The stable's runners today meanwhile include Royal Auclair, as classy a horse as has tried the cross-country fences.
But the most interesting race of the day is the Anglo Irish Private Banking Novices' Hurdle where a formidable Irish challenge is led by the Galway Hurdle winner, Cuan Na Grai.
Nap: Arctic Ghost
NB: Cuan Na Grai
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