A day that started well for Paul Nicholls, with a sparkling piece of work from one remarkable horse, finished even better, courtesy of a perfect racecourse performance from another. Not long after dawn in Somerset, Kauto Star proved himself right on schedule for his bid for an unprecedented fifth King George VI Chase on Boxing Day. And on a bright winter afternoon here, his stablemate Big Buck's, king of the smaller obstacles, notched his 14th victory in succession in the Long Walk Hurdle.
The eight-year-old's effortless eight-length success took him within two of Sir Ken's winning sequence over jumps, a record that included the Champion Hurdles of 1952 and 1953. Marathon hurdlers tend to be the poor relations of those who thrive over two miles, but not Big Buck's; he is the highest-rated over any sort of obstacle.
Six tested the near-black gelding's superiority yesterday, which was his first run clockwise after 33 races going left-handed, but once Ruby Walsh eased the 30-100 favourite alongside gallant trailblazer Dynaste going to the final turn it was clear that second prize – claimed by another Nicholls inmate, the 66-1 outsider of the field Five Dream – was their best hope.
Sure enough, Big Buck's scooted clear over the last two flights to win and eased down to rapturous acclaim. "He's unbelievable," said Walsh, "an incredible stayer with loads of pace, a combination you don't find too often."
Big Buck's, owned by the Stewart family, is 4-6 with sponsors Ladbrokes to take the season's long-distance crown, the World Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival, for the fourth time, and may have one run before then.
Though Prospect Wells, the Nicholls stable's favourite for the afternoon's valuable handicap hurdle, the Ladbroke, could finish only fourth to 12-1 shot Raya Star, two others from Ditcheat, Aerial and The Minack, also made it into the winner's circle.
And Nicholls had the memory of that morning's workouts, too. Not since Desert Orchid has a steeplechaser so captured the public imagination as Kauto Star, whose confirmed presence in the King George sent the switchboard at Kempton into meltdown. And if the vibes the 11-year-old is giving his trainer are right, all ye Boxing Day faithful will not be disappointed.
Kauto Star, who recaptured his best form at Haydock last month after a dip in fortunes last season with a defeat of a ring-rusty Gold Cup hero Long Run, matched strides in a strenuous piece of work with the yard's other King George contender, Master Minded. "We thought he'd probably had a hard race at Haydock," said Nicholls, "but he's been in terrific form since and, as important, still has his enthusiasm.
"It seems that he's as good as he's ever been; you'd expect a horse of his age to start to decline. Last season he was making a slight noise in his breathing when under pressure, and this year he's been clear. Maybe it's because we've got him fitter than ever, we've really been getting stuck into him."
Kauto Star, Walsh's big-race mount, and Master Minded, to be ridden by Daryl Jacob, are very different. "Nearlyanyone could jump on Master Mindedand ride a race on him," said Nicholls. "But Kauto takes a bit of knowing. Ruby wasn't on him last year and I'm very glad he will be this time."
Kauto Star, who finished third to Long Run in the King George 12 months ago and at Cheltenham, will tomorrow week start at odds-against in the Kempton race for the first time; he was trading yesterday at 4-1 second favourite behind the reigning champion. If he can defy his years and make it a record five, he will be a star of wonder indeed.