Chris McGrath: Kauto stars on every stage but one
Saturday 21 November 2009
Kauto Star is the sceptre among steeplechasing's crown jewels, but to the BBC he is just another paste gem. The corporation has gladly washed its hands of Haydock, as of so many tracks, and so leaves to Channel 4 the champion's reappearance this afternoon in the Betfair Chase.
As it happens, the BBC makes one of its increasingly rare visits to a racecourse at Aintree tomorrow – a tedious inconvenience, no doubt, but a small price to pay for its rights to the John Smith's Grand National itself.
And of course that is the perverse privilege guaranteed the BBC by this week's revised list of sporting events ring-fenced for terrestrial coverage. The bigger the event, the smaller the price it has to pay.
We owe this anomaly to the fact that the Government simply doesn't trust individual sports to make a dispassionate judgement of their own best interests. For the idea that you cannot put a price on the occasions that unite the nation – and so nourish popular commitment to a particular sport – has been repeatedly disproved by those in a position to name one to Rupert Murdoch.
The problem is that while the broadcasting environment is certainly changing, it is not really doing so for the very biggest events. With commercial broadcasters tightening their belts, it largely boils down to BBC or Sky. Neither side of the fence is sufficiently competitive, albeit the advent of ESPN in European football potentially introduces more formidable pay-to-view competition.
Though the National remains listed, it now looks as though the Derby can be sold to the highest bidder. The very fact that the racing authorities were moved to an indignant insistence that the race retains authentic "national resonance" itself betrayed the reality. The ECB, in contrast, had desperately hoped that no such compliment would be paid the Ashes.
Will Sky (or ESPN, or anyone else) really be moved to make racing an offer it couldn't refuse? The reality is that we cling so jealously to a sense of what the Derby used to mean – in the halcyon days when Parliament itself would be suspended – that it will still be lavished upon the BBC, the unfaithful lover who makes us so grateful when he doesn't come home drunk and angry.
Would the same be true of the National, if suddenly exposed to market forces? According to the example set by other sports, the government suspects not. As the one and only race dependably discussed in every pub – both the night before, and the night after – the National is a very different beast from the Derby. It is the one race Murdoch might view as a serviceable "battering ram". And, arguably, loss of universal access would be more socially deleterious than for anything on the list bar the big international football tournaments and Wimbledon. As such, it perfectly distils the dilemmas of the debate.
The fond suspicion persists that racing would stand firm, anyway – whether because it is ingenuous, or astute. Any short-term gains, after all, would be overwhelmed by a long-term admission that the entire sport belongs on the margins. To that extent, maybe racing would be best served by a free-for-all. Those who had the courage of their convictions, who believed that some things are too precious to sell, would then be able to measure the consequences against those who instead embraced whichever Mephistopheles could afford their souls.
For now, anyhow, terrestrial viewers can be grateful for the opportunity to see the only horse ever to have retrieved the Cheltenham Gold Cup. And, likewise, for the unexpected opportunity to back him at odds against. This can doubtless be attributed to the dispiriting example of Master Minded – another champion representing the same owner, trainer and jockey – who was beaten in heavy ground on his own reappearance at Cheltenham last Sunday.
Kauto Star has won the Betfair Chase twice already, and would probably have won it again last year, albeit unimpressively, but for notoriously discarding Sam Thomas over the final fence. Paul Nicholls, his trainer, cogently argues that he was a bit flat that day after taking in a trip to Down Royal three weeks earlier.
While the conditions could narrow the gulf in class dividing him from Notre Pere, Kauto Star (2.55) at his best is so far superior to his rivals that any reservations about him showing it today are amply factored into the prices. The only credible alternative would be each-way insurance about Madison Du Berlais, who is unbeaten on flat tracks since being fitted with cheekpieces.
The other televised races look grimly competitive, but Burton Port (2.20) remains unexposed beyond two and a half miles and has promised improvement when his stamina is brought into play. Shining Gale meanwhile made a promising return, but might struggle to give weight to Buck The Legend (3.25). His stable continues to go well, and he looked a top prospect before losing his way last spring.
Down at Ascot it's a big day for Alan King, who restores three of his heavy artillery to the battlefield in Voy Por Ustedes (3.10), Katchit and Karabak. The latter pair must deal in the Coral Ascot Hurdle with Zaynar, the unbeaten Triumph Hurdle winner, as well as each other – but Karabak (2.35) looks fair value at 100-30.
It will not be a day for millinery, of course, so even for Ascot don't make the mistake of tuning into the BBC.
Presvis proof Cumani will be the bedrock of Fallon revival
There has been no confirmation of a formal arrangement between Kieren Fallon and Luca Cumani, but the evidence is there for all to see at Lingfield today. Presvis has been one of the most lucrative partners of Ryan Moore's career, having won a huge prize in Hong Kong in April, but the horse has a new rider in the Betdaq Churchill Stakes. As Cumani himself said during the week: "Kieren is riding for us now, so he is very welcome to ride our best horses as well as our bad ones!"
Cumani is plainly going to provide the bedrock for Fallon's attempt to retrieve "his" championship from Moore next year. His yard is unlikely to rival the firepower of Moore's own employer, Sir Michael Stoute, but every jockey needs some such source of quality and consistency, to maintain a sense of momentum and direction. Stoute himself remains an admirer of Fallon, of course, and will not be averse to keeping Moore on his toes by giving him rides, too.
As for Presvis, he is being prepared for a return to Hong Kong next month followed by another stint in Dubai. "He's in great form but possibly a little bit overweight, so he will benefit from the run," Cumani says. "He has an 8lb penalty and is running against fit horses. As long as he runs a good prep race for Hong Kong, I'll be happy."
Turf account: Chris McGrath
Kazbow (5.0 Kempton) Has gone up 6lb for successive defeats since earning a handicap mark, but finished a long way clear of the pack when bumping into a flourishing rival at Wolverhampton last time. This track should suit him better, too.
Sunny Spells (6.15 Wolverhampton) This looks his most suitable opportunity since his delayed return to the track this season, having run over an inadequate trip on his comeback and then met traffic next time, dropped 5lb in the process.
*One to watch
Chaim (Mrs L Wadham) has had a staccato career to date, but his return from another absence at Market Rasen on Wednesday suggests that he will soon resume his progress.
*Where the money's going
Vic Venturi is 11-4 with the sponsors for the Totesport Becher Chase at Aintree tomorrow – a race won last year by his trainer, Dessie Hughes.
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