In motor racing, they call it a moment. And for Ruby Walsh on Kauto Star here yesterday it was a big moment, the horseback equivalent of that ghastly life-flashing split second between feeling the oversteer and regaining control. At the last fence in the Aon Chase, the Gold Cup favourite's brain lodged out of gear for an instant, giving Walsh no warning as he went from purring Ferrari to discordant old banger as he took off.
Worryingly, it was a replica of not only his almighty blunder at the final obstacle in the King George VI Chase in Dec-ember which, like yesterday's, he survived victorious, but also the one at the third in the Queen Mother Champion Chase back in March, which turned him over. The seven-year-old, pressed by L'Ami, launched himself in the air perhaps half a stride early, tried to correct by putting one foot down, changed his mind almost immediately, ended up with both knees in the birch, his back feet on the apron and Walsh on the buckle end as his mount improvised his way through the fence.
The gelding's backers, at 2-9, would have suffered for only a heartbeat yesterday; those who hold ante-post Gold Cup vouchers - he remains favourite at a general 6-4 - have more than a month of palpitations.
Kauto Star's antics have Walsh, one of the most natural and experienced of horsemen among jockeys, unable to read him. "It's so quick, you hardly feel it before he's over and getting balanced again," he said. "But I honestly don't know what's going through his mind when he does it."
Otherwise, the gelding's Cheltenham prep went to order. From his station off the pace as his stablemate Royal Auclair shared duties up front with King Harald, Clive Smith's colour-bearer was always going easily if a little too freely and, allowing for the restraints placed on his exuberance, his jumping was otherwise foot-perfect. But for the blunder, he would have leapt to the lead at the last, and it is to his credit that he remained upright and saw off L'Ami, to whom he was giving 10lb, by a neck.
"Make no mistake, that a good performance," added Walsh. "He had never really switched off, we were just starting to race going to the last, the other horse landed running, but mine stuck his head down and was always going to win." Despite his jumping aberrations, Kauto Star's record this season now reads five for five, the last four of them Grade Ones.
"What he does is so frustrating," said his trainer, Paul Nicholls. "He's got a brilliant jump, he's run 20 times now and he knows what it's at. But I'm sure he'll be better in a faster-run race. Ruby was riding to orders today, I told him I didn't want to see him in front before the last, and maybe we'd have been better letting him bowl along. But having to race will have done him good after his very easy wins."
The rising chasing star among Nicholls' string, Denman, had a far smoother pre-Cheltenham outing under Walsh, looking an old head on young shoulders as he made every yard of the opening novices' chase without a semblance of an error. The 2-1 on offer afterwards for the Royal & Sun- Alliance Chase did not last long.
Trainers experience different emotions through their charges and for those connected with Well Chief, relief was paramount yesterday. Racing for the first time for 22 months after suffering leg problems, the eight-year-old defied his absence to take the Game Spirit Chase under a perfect ride from Timmy Murphy by 11 lengths and put himself right in the Champion Chase mix. Two years ago, Well Chief beat all bar Moscow Flyer for the Festival two-mile crown and has now supplanted Voy Por Ustedes, an early unseater yesterday, as favourite for next month's edition after cruising up to, past and away from Ashley Brook in the straight. "He's just a great little horse," said his trainer, David Pipe, "but the important thing will be how he is tomorrow. Thirty-one days to Cheltenham and I'll be counting each one."
At Leopardstown, Beef Or Salmon showed courage under hard driving from Andrew McNamara to catch long-time leader The Listener after the last to take his third Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup in five years, bringing his Grade One score to 10.
BETS OF THE DAY
Mademoiselle (2.40), staying on well over today's trip at Lingfield last time, can react positively to slower surface and first-time cheekpieces.
Inconsistent - first and last over course and distance in last two runs - but Ace Club (2.10) could be interesting for his new connections.