Even those who might smugly invoke the cliche about fences being there to be jumped should agree that if ever a combination deserved to take the spoils, it was Kauto Star and Walsh, for the sheer ability of the one and the competitive spirit and horsemanship of the other. Entering the final straight the white-faced five-year-old had engaged overdrive and opened daylight on his two rivals without any visible effort on his or his rider's part and those who had backed him at 2-11 were already trundling ringwards. That Andrew Thornton, on Mistral De La Cour, had accepted the situation was evident by his backward glance to check on the whereabouts of the labouring other runner, Goldbrook.
Then, in an instant, the picture changed. Kauto Star, freewheeling down to the fence, got in deep, clipped the top and landed too steeply. As he and Walsh sprawled, Mistral De La Cour, a 20-1 shot, lurched over the obstacle, past him and away. Walsh was up in a flash and vaulted back into the saddle with the agility of a rodeo trick rider, not bothering to waste time regaining irons as he galvanised his mount into a gallop and cleared the last 10 lengths adrift. But the line came too soon to deny the pair a remarkable victory and one punter a bonanza.
For if those on-course had only to mull over a couple of maxims concerning the folly of backing at odds-on in a novice chase and the reward to be gained from going for the outsider of three, those playing on-line had their nerves shredded as they shared the heart-stopping risks of the computer betting age.
Going to the fateful fence, Kauto Star was being traded at 1-50 on Betfair. Seconds later, he was a 999-1 shot and one man took up the challenge with an pounds 8 stake to win nearly pounds 8,000. "Sad for the punter," said Betfair spokesman Tony Calvin, "but rather lucky for the layer."
Despite Kauto Star's mishap, his position as market leader for the Arkle remains unruffled. "I suppose it was a bit my own fault," Walsh said. "I was heading to victory and keeping something for Cheltenham. He was running a bit quick at it, but if it had been more competitive and there'd been something coming at me, he might have given me a good long one. When I got back on him, one rein got tangled round the bar of the bit, and I wondered for a stride or two if he was OK. But for that, I would have got after him straight away and he'd probably have won. He'd jumped magic, but it's a learning curve with novices, and better he did it here than at the second last in the Arkle."
Kauto Star is unlikely to appear again before the Festival. "He's a brilliant jumper, the race is only five weeks off and this was just one of those things," said Nicholls, adding, with commendable understatement: "I always thought this might be a horlicks of a race."
l At Kempton, 13-year-old Edredon Bleu finished a creditable fourth to Cheltenham-bound novice Bagan on his first hurdles run for eight years and has a chase at Wincanton next month pencilled in. "Just what the doctor ordered," said trainer Henrietta Knight, "but it's one race at a time with him now."
Nap: Dun An Doras