Can Kauto Star shine brightly to revive faith?

Admittedly it is not a question many would entertain within earshot of his trainer, whose reaction was so memorably choleric when it was raised, live on television, the day after Kauto Star's mishap at Haydock last month. But since that left the horse with one success in his last four starts, more objective judges will acknowledge that his quest for a third consecutive Stan James King George VI Chase on Boxing Day rests squarely on the answer, not of Paul Nicholls, but of Kauto Star himself. In short, has the needle on his gauge finally entered the red?

In principle, none can sensibly doubt whether Kauto Star is the best horse among those declared for the race yesterday; nor, equally, that three flat, sharp miles round Kempton represents an optimal compromise between the diverse tests he has passed so flamboyantly over the years: whether outpacing Voy Por Ustedes, over two miles, at Sandown two years ago, or outstaying Exotic Dancer, over three and a quarter, in the Gold Cup at Cheltenham the very same season. In the meantime, he had won his first King George, and perhaps came up with the defining performance of his career when following up last December.

Equally, however, all these assignments represent miles on the clock. This will be his 30th lifetime start, more than any horse in the field (bar the irrelevant Mont Misere). In a horse like Denman, his contemporary and next door neighbour, their age – eight rising nine – implies a peak of physique and performance. But while Kauto Star raced 10 times in France, Denman was still standing in a field in Ireland; he had, moreover, made two starts for Nicholls before Denman first drew attention to himself in a maiden point-to-point at Liscarrol.

Denman – who incidentally does not take up a possible engagement over hurdles at Wincanton on Boxing Day – was appearing for only the 14th time when seeming to break Kauto Star's heart with that merciless exhibition of jumping and galloping at Cheltenham in March. Fascinatingly, Nicholls recently disclosed that he had watched the replay the next day – and ask yourself how you might feel had you saddled the first three home in the Gold Cup – with tears in his eyes, so dismayed was he for his usurped champion.

This candid affection for Kauto Star is certainly touching, but it does make him a somewhat vulnerable witness. Even during the horse's rise to stardom, Nicholls seemed to take legitimate questions, for instance about those heart-in-mouth jumping errors, as something akin to a personal affront. As such, it is difficult to know quite what to make of his indignation with those who perceive an incipient decline in Kauto Star.

In one significant respect, however, his testimony does have a very credible ring. For his various explanations for the horse's awkward display at Haydock incorporate the possibility that Kauto Star is now best when fresh, as he was on his reappearance at Down Royal. To that extent he would conform to a discernible trend in the stable, one Nicholls himself seems to acknowledge in proposing a long break for so many of his best horses before the Cheltenham Festival in March. You can rest assured that Kauto Star has been trained with corresponding delicacy during Advent. In fairness, the horse did travel with plenty of enthusiasm until hitting the third last at Haydock, and moved with a good deal less freedom thereafter. Prior to that he had accomplished a facile task at Down Royal with tremendous flair, while the combination of a hard race at Cheltenham and an incautious ride on the day had left him exhausted on his final start last season, at Aintree.

The paradox still persists that the best horse in the race requires a certain leap of faith from his backers. The same can equally be said, though, of all his most plausible rivals. Having won over two miles at the last two Christmas meetings here, Voy Por Ustedes steps up to three after a couple of excellent efforts over the intermediate distance at Aintree. Clearly he is still to prove his stamina, in contrast with Snoopy Loopy, who produced another improved effort tried in blinkers at Huntingdon last time, and is certain to relish the return to this longer trip.

Blinkers also did the trick for Our Vic last season, not least when nailing Kauto Star that day at Aintree, but his stable's form remains fitful, a concern also for Tamarinbleu. They have been around for a long time now, anyhow, certainly compared with Imperial Commander, much the least exposed animal in the field.

This horse produced a really gung-ho performance when demolishing a field of smart handicappers at Cheltenham last month, his high cruising speed volunteering him loudly for a race like this. That was only his fourth start over fences, and clearly the handicapper had been given inadequate material to make a proper judgement that day. He still divides Imperial Commander and Kauto Star by 19lb, however, so they probably need to meet in the middle if Imperial Commander is to win – in other words, even considerable improvement will need to be matched by some deterioration in the favourite.

Moreover Nigel Twiston-Davies does not seem to have his stable in quite the same form now. Otherwise the race is lacking really progressive types, and overall the anxieties about Kauto Star do seem to be fully incorporated in the very fair odds available. After all, he could beat most of these without approaching his very best.

Snoopy Loopy was by no means cooked when Kauto Star lost his footing at Haydock, landing over the last, and again looks the best each-way alternative. For the truly needy and greedy, Albertas Run has a good record right-handed and could conceivably come to life if jumping better.

For the time being, however, it would seem sacrilegious to favour such yeoman rivals to an aristocrat whose velvet happens to be getting a little frayed.

Boxing Day Independent

Chris McGrath's analysis plus racecards and selections for all eight Boxing Day meetings.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + uncapped commission, Benefits, OTE £100k: SThree: ...

Guru Careers: Dining Room Head Chef

£32K: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Dining Room Head Chef to work for one of ...

Guru Careers: Pastry Sous Chef / Experienced Pastry Chef

£27K: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Pastry Sous Chef / Experienced Pastry Che...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£20000 - £25000 per annum + competitive: SThree: Are you a recent graduate loo...

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine