It was a bold call, and one Paul Nicholls found wrigglingly hard to make but, in the end, he could find no reason not to. So, two weeks after annihilating most of the best three-mile chasers around, six-year-old Kauto Star found himself here yesterday to take on the two-mile cracks, and slaughtered them as well.
It was, as the performance at Haydock had been, a stunning display from the young gelding, a seven-length on-the-bridle defeat of Voy Por Ustedes, with Ruby Walsh easing down and patting the elegant neck half-way up the run-in of the Tingle Creek Chase. But being there was risking a hiding to nothing, and Nicholls' overwhelming reaction was relief.
Three days before the entries for the £79,828 prize closed, Kauto Star's owner Clive Smith fielded a text telling him: "Tingle Creek could come too soon. If he was 9 or 10, could have risked him." Then almost, but not quite, against his better judgement, the champion trainer, in the face of a chorus of positivity, had given-the go-ahead for the venture, audacious and unusual on the counts of the rapidity of reappearance and the drop back of a mile in trip.
"The horse told me that he was ready," Nicholls said, "my head lad Clifford Baker, who rides him every day, told me he was ready, and Ruby told me he was ready. I was, apparently, the only one feeling pressure. And if I'd had half an excuse not to run him, I wouldn't have. But he was so fresh and well at home that he needed a run. You've got to keep your mind open and you don't have horses to leave them in their box when they shouldn't be."
Kauto Star, who had won the Grade One contest 12 months previously, before his reinvention as a staying chaser, looked thoroughly up for the fray and Walsh had him close to the brisk enough gallop set by Dempsey, but wide enough of the front rank to avoid any distractions when the leader fell six out, the first of the railway fences. Over those three tricky, close-spaced obstacles, Kauto Star and Voy Por Ustedes, with Choc Thornton in the saddle, drew clear.
Voy Por Ustedes, last year's leading two-mile novice, led round the home turn, but only on sufferance. Kauto Star went past him in the air three out and in an instant there was an effortless, invisible change of gear and growing daylight between the pair. "It was all over in two strides," said Walsh.
The only moment of worry for fans of the 4-9 favourite was at the penultimate obstacle when the bay chest split the birch about a foot too low and the white face nodded. But credit to Kauto Star, for he never looked like falling and Walsh sat tight. "He was a good bit cleverer than I was," said the Irishman. "I should have allowed him to pop it but I asked him up.
"I've never ridden a horse like him. At Haydock I was worried that he might not settle on his first try over three miles, and he just switched off. Then today, back at two, I wanted to set off a bit quicker and he just came to life. It's almost as if he knows himself what he has to do and all I have to do is steer him. Everything is very easy for him. He's a bit special."
Kauto Star, who looked as perky after the race as before it, is now favourite not only for the King George VI Chase on Boxing Day, the original post-Haydock plan A before yesterday's well-paid exercise gallop, but also the Cheltenham Gold Cup and even the Queen Mother Champion Chase. His talent is indisputable but one question mark remains: the pronunciation of the first part of his name. "Whatever it is," added Nicholls, "I think star is right."
The top-level circus reconvenes at Fairyhouse today, notably for the Hatton's Grace Hurdle, in which Asian Maze and Brave Inca clash for the second time in a fortnight. At Punches-town the reigning champion plugged on in third place as the mare kept Iktitaf honest seven lengths in front and although he is expected to improve for the run, and is reunited with Tony McCoy, she will too, and steps up to her best trip.
The Royal Bond Novice Hurdle, in which Clopf will be short odds to maintain his unbeaten obstacles record, has a most distinguished pedigree, the winners in the past 10 years having included Istabraq, Moscow Flyer, Like-A-Butterfly, Hardy Eustace and, last year, Iktitaf. The third Grade One contest on the card, the Drinmore Chase, brings the highly-regarded novices Blueberry Boy, O'Muircheartaigh, and King Johns Castle.
A world record was set at Bay Meadows, California, on Friday night when Russell Baze notched his 9,531st winner, making him the jockey with the most winners of all time. The 48-year-old's victory on Butterfly Belle took him past Laffit Pincay Jr's old mark.Reuse content