Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown, but not half as uneasy as the one that has to wear a moustache as well. Stylish in all he does, Sam Waley-Cohen must be experiencing considerable aesthetic distress since nobly donating his upper lip to "Movember".
The same charitable cause is this month disfiguring several other prominent faces on the Turf, but few share the exposure awaiting Waley-Cohen today as he resumes his partnership with the outstanding steeplechaser in the land.
Given his instinct for cutting a dash, perhaps Waley-Cohen will succeed in compounding his status as Corinthian throwback by modelling his whiskers on those of some Victorian cavalry officer. Certainly, the amateur jockey, wearing the silks of his father, has long since stifled mistrust in even the most jaundiced punters. But horse and rider must together embrace a very different role in the Betfair Chase at Haydock, compared with this time last year.
Back then, Long Run was the young pretender. But his wins in the King George VI Chase and Cheltenham Gold Cup unequivocally usurped the ageing monarch, Kauto Star, and they meet again today with expectations transposed. Long Run is now hot favourite while Kauto Star, odds-on for 14 of his past 16 starts, is 7-1.
This is such a strong field, however, that you could not be at all surprised to see them both beaten. Long Run, remember, was turned over in a Cheltenham handicap on his reappearance last season. Nicky Henderson could hardly have his string in better form, with five winners yesterday, but will once again have Boxing Day and the Festival in March as his priorities. And any lack of sharpness in Long Run is always liable to manifest itself in his jumping, which remains somewhat more of an issue than might be suggested by a history of never once failing to make the podium in 18 starts.
The form-book entry for his Gold Cup win is strewn with black marks: "blundered third, hit 10th, tracking leaders when blundered 12th, not fluent four out..." Of his comeback defeat, equally, the Racing Post records: "not fluent sixth, mistake seventh, hit 12th, one pace when blundered two out". Some day, Long Run will not get away with sheer horsepower alone – and he may never be more vulnerable than when the engine is not quite tuned up.
Kauto Star, on the other hand, is expected to strip fitter for his fifth start in this race than in any previous year. Though infuriated by calls for the horse's retirement, following four defeats in five races, Paul Nicholls wants to satisfy himself beyond any doubt as to the veteran's enduring capacity to enjoy his vocation. Long Run had not even been born when Kauto Star made his debut for Nicholls, in a novice chase at Newbury in December 2004. Sentiment may well dispose some to take a loyal interest, at the odds, and Nicholls says that Kauto Star looks "amazing". But the recent public evidence suggests he has lost the pace of his pomp.
Weird Al, in contrast, looked better than ever in his first start for Donald McCain, at Wetherby last month, though he may not confirm that form with Time For Rupert, who was caught rather flat-footed round there. Equally, we probably won't see the best of that one until he gets a hill to run at, and the one horse with everything in his favour today is Diamond Harry (3.05). Unbeaten in two starts at Haydock, and in five seasonal debuts, he may prove harder to beat here and now than on any other day this season. As such, he would surely be the most palatable of conquerors for connections of the favourite – quite apart from the exceptional quality he suggested in his sole appearance last season, when having the Hennessy all but sewn up a mile out. Injury, sadly, intruded on his Gold Cup preparation, but at least that leaves Diamond Harry entitled to further progress after just four starts over fences.
Kauto Star's connections hope that Master Minded could yet take the baton from their multiple King George winner, by stepping up to three miles at Kempton this Christmas. He made such a meek return at Aintree, however, that he too has something to prove in the Amlin 1965 Chase at Ascot. In his favour is a record of bouncing back strongly from previous disappointments, as well as three flawless exhibitions round this track – none more dazzling than in this race last year. But Somersby (2.10) went on to run him to a photo here in January, and his own comeback reiterated that he could yet fulfil his longstanding promise.
Both races might go to the wire. If there's only a whisker in it, then that can only count in favour of Waley-Cohen.
Chris McGrath's Nap
Sa Suffit (2.30 Haydock)
Confined to one start in 18 months before a very promising resumption over an inadequate trip at Kelso the other day and, sure to benefit for that run, looks well treated for this switch to hurdles.
Overturn (2.45 Ascot)
Oscar Whisky will have to be on top of his game to give 8lb first time out to such a tough front-runner, whose exploits on the Flat suggest he may do better still at this longer trip.
One to watch
Third Intention did best of those in the firing line throughout in the Greatwood Hurdle at Cheltenham last Sunday, having travelled powerfully as usual, and should go on maturing.
Where the money's going
Dynaste is 8-1 from 12-1 with William Hill for the Betfair Fixed Brush Handicap Hurdle at Haydock today.
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