The confrontation that is holding the sport in thrall was hanging in the balance last night. Hours after Kauto Star picked up the Cheltenham Gold Cup gauntlet thrown down a week earlier by his stablemate Denman with supreme confidence, and no little arrogance, he was found to be lame on a foreleg.
There are now only 26 days to go until the Cheltenham showpiece, for which the reigning title holder intensified his position as an already hot favourite for a successful defence of his crown with his eight-length defeat of Monet's Garden in the Commercial First Ascot Chase. A number of bookmaking firms have now suspended betting on the Gold Cup.
Kauto Star travelled easily and jumped superbly as he left old rival Monet's Garden trailing over the last two fences yesterday and galloped powerfully past the post with rider Ruby Walsh patting his neck. But later he started limping and a sprained fetlock was the provisional diagnosis.
Trainer Paul Nicholls did not last night rule the eight-year-old out of the Gold Cup and intends to issue a statement about his well-being this morning.
But if his clash in the Gold Cup with Denman is off, it will be a devastating blow for not only Nicholls, owner Clive Smith and the team at Manor Farm Stables, but for racing itself. The supremely talented geldings have dominated the Cheltenham betting all season and although they eyeball each other at home from their adjacent stables on a daily basis, they had yet to clash in anger on a racecourse.
Opinions as to their merit are divided and yesterday's performance had Kauto Star's camp in raptures. The Grade One test was sterner in several ways than Denman's Newbury exam; not only did Kauto Star meet higher-class rivals, but he was perceived as being disadvantaged by the right-handed direction and the drop back in trip.
But the faithful, who came in record numbers to the Ascot fixture and applauded their hero for merely being in the parade ring, need not have worried. Up front Fair Along made the contest a searching one with his quick, slick trailblazing. Walsh settled the 4-11 favourite near the front of the pursuers, never worse than third, and second for most of the final lap. Going to the third-last Kauto Star and Monet's Garden powered in unison past the leader; on the turn into the straight Kauto Star quickened and lengthened and in turn dropped Monet's Garden, last year's winner, just as easily.
The bay winged the penultimate obstacle with flair, popped over the last with agility and passed the post with his ears pricked. Monet's Garden was firmly put in his place but still had enough in reserve to fight off Racing Demon by a neck for the runner-up spot.
Nicholls' immediate emotions combined delight with horse and jockey, and blessed relief. But frailty, thy name is horse. Shattering disappointment and an anxious overnight vigil came later.
At Gowran Park, there was also deflation as Kicking King – who in his prime compiled the same CV of a Gold Cup and two King George VI Chases as Kauto Star – was only third in Ireland's big-race trial. The ten-year-old had returned from two years off after injury with immense promise last month, but failed to build on it in the Red Mills Chase.
He found nothing for Barry Geraghty as 33-1 outsider Ballistraw won easily. Kicking King, though, is still on course for the Festival. "I'd have been happier if her'd won," said trainer Tom Taaffe, "but now there'll be no pressure on us. If he's OK over the next couple of days it's still onwards to Cheltenham. I always said from day one of his comeback I was training him for one day, and I still am."