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.