Chris McGrath: After the bleak midwinter, cue Kauto for fresh blaze of glory – or farewell bow

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The Independent Online

To many of those finally gathering at Kempton today, the past 20 days will have spanned an entire geological aeon.

Midwinter has begrudged every hour of light, and our racecourses have congealed like cold gruel under heavy skies. In the context of what racegoers have come to witness, however, the interval amounts to the briefest pulse of some brilliant star.

For what is 20 days, measured against all this epochal talk of making history, of dates with destiny? The postponement of his quest for an unprecedented fifth success in steeplechasing's midwinter championship, after snow and frost claimed the race on Boxing Day, is barely a footnote in the Kauto Star saga.

Having said that, the delay has given subtle emphasis to his quest in the William Hill King George VI Chase. For one thing, the bureaucratic convenience that determines every thoroughbred's birthday to be 1 January means that Kauto Star will now be listed in the racecard as 11 years old, rather than 10. And that should remind everyone that much the biggest threat to the champion today lurks somewhere in his own bone and sinew.

All those who deal with Kauto Star on a daily basis are adamant that he remains in his pomp. Paul Nicholls, his trainer, has been campaigning his best horses in increasingly conservative fashion – in the most literal sense, that is, conserving their resources with a light racing schedule – and is handsomely vindicated by the results. Kauto Star's performance in this race last season, just three starts ago, was arguably the most dazzling of his entire career. At his best, he would be separated from his rivals by a gulf in class to make even odds of 4-6 seem pretty generous. The annals of this race are strewn with multiple winners, after all, and he seems ideally suited by its demands, being able to jump and travel with such unrelenting brio. He has won it four times by an aggregate of 63 lengths, and official ratings make this field perhaps the least exacting to date. What, as they say, could possibly go wrong?

Well, the fact is that his staggering consistency in elite company is some day going to take the petrol gauge into the red. And he is not going to announce that moment in advance by taking out a full-page advertisement in the national press.

After that breathtaking exhibition on his last visit here, Kauto Star was sent off at odds-on for his third Gold Cup at Cheltenham in March. As everyone who saw it will remember, not just his career but his very life seemed at stake when he took that harrowing fall four out. He had no chance at the time, moreover, having lost all rhythm after an earlier blunder. In his younger days, he was notoriously prone to the odd, inattentive mistake, often when clear of the field and idling at the last fence. But this was an unnerving departure from past experience. Was it just a random aberration, or the first sign of an incipient decline?

Those wrestling with thatquestion have only one piece of evidence, in his comeback success at Down Royal in November. Happily, his jumping was immaculate. And Nicholls was amply satisfied to see him beat Sizing Europe and China Rock by four lengths and a neck. True, the runner-up has yet to offer any definitive proof of his stamina, and Ruby Walsh had to ride Kauto Star pretty purposefully to see him off. To Nicholls, however, this was simply an exercise in getting the horse back on track.

Unfortunately, Walsh went on to break his leg that same afternoon, but they say this fellow McCoy can ride a bit. And when Nicholls says that his new jockey will find Kauto Star every bit as good as ever, the rest of us have to take his word for it. Because his last two runs, in isolation, would make you wonder.

Mind you, the leap of faith arguably required by Kauto Star today is barely a fissure compared with the abyss dividing his rivals from the champion at his very best. The theory that Long Run retains every entitlement to become a star in his own right is becoming pretty complicated, if just about still feasible. The favourite's stablemate, The Nightingale, accompanied him to Down Royal in November and the style of his own success was far less equivocal, visually at any rate. Conceivably, moreover, he could improve for the extra distance, and likewise Riverside Theatre, who adores Kempton, unbeaten in four visits to date.

It would certainly sweeten the disappointment for the sport's fans were Kauto Star usurped by a horse whose owners include one of our leading actors, in Jimmy Nesbitt. As it stands, however, neutrals will do well to recognise another way in which the race's postponement has clarified its central drama.

For the whole occasion may feel rather different today, stripped of its ritual function. Four times, Kauto Star has served as an antidote to the fug and stupefaction of an indoor Christmas; four times, he has invoked that ghost of Christmas past, Desert Orchid. Staged as scheduled, then, a fifth success might itself have obtained a ritual, ceremonial quality. And really it does no justice to the horse, nor to his assignment, to say that it was ever a case of Kauto Star simply turning up and going through the motions. Because the day that happens will also be the day he finds himself taking that curtain call at last.

Dirt and Blame likely to stick in horse of year row

Lest we forget, some people don't even rate Kauto Star the best steeplechaser in training, never mind the best since Arkle. Prominent among these you will find the trainer of Imperial Commander, and plenty of banter is guaranteed in the build-up to his Gold Cup defence should Kauto Star win today.

Nothing, however, to approach the incendiary debate once again wrenching open the fault lines in American racing. Twelve months ago, fans of Zenyatta were enraged by a perceived bias to the East Coast, and dirt racing, among those Eclipse Award voters who made Rachel Alexandra Horse Of The Year. On Monday, the same prejudices could yet see Blame claim the honour for 2010 after becoming the only horse ever to beat Zenyatta, in the Breeders' Cup Classic. Yet the manner of that defeat – needing just one more stride, after making up unfeasible ground in the stretch - only magnified the great mare's legacy. As Jerry Moss, her owner, says: "If she's not acknowledged with one Horse of the Year title, in her three-year campaign, to me it would be a little ridiculous."

Al Stall, trainer of Blame, predictably sees it as black and white. "We had a head-to-head," he shrugs. "Every horse had its chance, and we prevailed." Nor should Europeans be deceived that this is just some petty, local squabble. After the depressing return of dirt racing to Santa Anita, the vote will tell us plenty about the way the wind is blowing over the ocean. We're about to find out just how stubborn is the culture of Blame.

Turf Account: Chris McGrath

Nap

James De Vassy (3.35 Kempton)

Ultimately well beaten on his return, but went sweetly for a long way in what was a hot race and not given a hard time as he tired. That was his first start over 3m, and the drop back in trip today seems likely to suit.

Next best

Call Me A Legend (1.40 Warwick)

Unexposed over fences and suggested herself equal to this kind of rating with a promising return at Newbury, finishing on the heels of the protagonists.

One to watch

Malin Bay (Nicky Richards) represents a stable going through a barren spell but promised to do something about that when making his belated reappearance at Newcastle during the week, third despite an inadequate trip.

Where the money's going

Brampour has been backed into 10-1 co-favouritism with Coral for the JCB Triumph Hurdle despite never having left the ground in public. The French import does so for the first time today in the juvenile hurdle at Kempton.

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