Among the many different ghosts roused by Kauto Star, none has been been made to roam so unhappily, so soon, as Best Mate. Those protective of his memory would doubtless be amused, therefore, if any immoderate claims are made for the potential of the horse that wins the big race at Sandown today.
For one thing, Best Mate himself was beaten in the Anglo Irish Bank Tolworth Hurdle. More pertinently, success would qualify either of the two key protagonists as the best young prospect for Best Mate's owner or trainer, respectively, since his death in 2005.
For Jim Lewis, it could be Breedsbreeze, like Best Mate discovered winning a point-to-point in Ireland, only this time sent to the stables of Paul Nicholls. For Henrietta Knight, meanwhile, it could be Calgary Bay, from the family of those doughty chasers The Grey Monk and Grey Abbey.
Few hurdle races over two miles are more likely to volunteer a future steeplechasing star than this one, run in testing ground up the hill at Sandown. That has got to count against Deep Purple and Alsadaa, Flat-bred horses that have made their reputations racing prominently on fast ground. Anyone who backs either is frankly guessing.
Breedsbreeze, in contrast, has won over two and a half miles and produced his best effort in deep ground last time, when second in a handicap over course and distance. With his stable always full of embryo chasers, Nicholls has won three of the past five runnings of this race, and Breedsbreeze looks sure to be involved in the finish.
But narrow preference is for the horse that impressed Tony McCoy so much at Cheltenham last time. While they did not go a great gallop, given his pedigree that would have suited Calgary Bay (2.40) least of all. He coped well with soft going in a bumper last season, and a forecast bet with Breedsbreeze is recommended to the needy or greedy.
The Kauto Star colours of Clive Smith focus attention on much the most interesting candidate for the preceding race. The form figures of Master Minded (2.05) have an alarming flavour of alphabet soup, given the test of jumping he faces here, but Ruby Walsh rides him for the first time since they finished second in a Grade One race at Auteuil last summer. Though he managed just two fences on his British debut, at Exeter last month, he looks extremely well handicapped on his French form.
It is harder to get a handle on the history of Tino Tino, a potential banana-skin in the Partybets Handicap Hurdle. Regardless, the promise shown by Fredensborg (3.10) on his debut for Carl Llewellyn at Kempton suggests he will be winning a handicap sooner rather than later.
Astarador is an interesting runner, having been placed in the Tolworth last year, while his stablemate, Backbeat (3.45), may be worth risking at a big price in the last after losing his way since a useful novice campaign. The handicapper has certainly taken pity on him.
At Wincanton, the Nicholls-trained KALDOUAS (nap 3.25) might prove the bet of the day despite having fallen in three of his seven chase starts.
Kauto Star defies comparison for now
Those souvenirs of Best Mate remind us how very narrow is the strip between hearsay and heresy on the Turf. On the one side is all the gossip and hype, lush acres where horses are allowed to graze on our excitability. On the other, however, the pastures of deep-rooted, inviolable greatness seem to be guarded no less jealously.
It has become the standard experience with every irregular talent. You can guarantee that for every man affronted by your reluctance to salute a new paragon, another will accuse you of doing so with unseemly haste. Almost invariably, of course, proper judgement will expose you to the crossfire.
The latest champion to divide and rule, Kauto Star, palpably demands inclusion among the elite of modern steeplechasing a body that extends all the way back to jump racing's ultimate sacred cow, Arkle. That should be enough for anybody. The only exercise more pointless than denying his right to such comparisons is to try to be precise about them. After all, there are those who do not even consider him the best horse in his own yard.
That, at least, is one question that can soon be resolved, so long as Kauto Star and Denman both make it to the Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup in one piece. For now the onus rests with Denman, Kauto Star having identified himself as an unusually ruthless talent, and one of the best steeplechasers of recent years.
If he stays sound, he has every chance of matching Desert Orchid, by winning the King George VI Chase four times, rather than twice; or Best Mate, by winning the Gold Cup three times, instead of once. It is no less valid to argue that he has the ability to do so, than to remind ourselves that he has not done so just yet.
A merry dance too fast for Merrigan
You do not meet many young jockeys as candidly excited by their calling as Paddy Merrigan. Nobody who witnessed his tantrum at Haydock in November, after his mount fell at the last hurdle in a televised race, could doubt his hunger for success. None, likewise, that saw his fearless ride on Souffleur at Aintree the next day could dispute that he has the nerve for the big stage. What he has to do now is show that he has the temperament to take the knocks as well.
The season's leading conditional rider has his first mount since Boxing Day at Wincanton today, having apparently fled Peter Bowen's yard in disgust after being replaced by a senior rider on one or two of the better horses he had ridden. As it happens, National Trust has an excellent chance of reminding everyone of his rider's talent especially Bowen, who happens to train one of his main rivals. Touch wood, Merrigan has not burned his boats with his employer, who has pointedly declined to offer any criticism of this headstrong young man.
Merrigan needs to remember that it was Bowen who gave him the opportunity he needed, just when he seemed to be losing his way. His first job in Britain had ended in acrimony two years previously, and Paul Nicholls did not provide him with the sort of opportunities he had hoped for last season. Bowen, however, has allowed his undoubted talent to flourish. If he is now trying to keep his feet on the ground, that might be no bad thing. Merrigan is still young enough to deserve another chance, but only if he shows a maturing sense of how to cope when things go wrong.
Essex track might yet prove its worth
The word "fixture" is not proving terribly apposite in connection with Great Leighs. Billed as the first new British racecourse in over 80 years, at this rate is going to end up the first in 100. Another delay was announced yesterday, when an official inspection of the Essex track prompted the return of another seven meetings to the British Horseracing Authority. Originally scheduled to open in October 2006, the target date has now been postponed from 24 February to 18 March. But none of the reasons why the project was considered workable in the first place have been remotely diminished by its serial frustrations. Great Leighs has become a bit of standing joke in the racing community, but he who laughs last, laughs longest.