Chris McGrath: Long Run haunted by a ghost of Christmas past

Inside Track: Boxing Day history beckons after a star is reborn in legendary four-time winner Kauto

He stands on the threshold between present and past, life and legend.

As the only horse to win the King George VI Chase four years running, Kauto Star returns to Kempton on Boxing Day already guaranteed a place in steeplechasing lore alongside Desert Orchid, that grey phantom of Christmas past. But a miraculous rejuvenation means that he remains a tangible force for the here and now, as well.

Clive Smith, his owner, knows how perilous that margin can be. In 1966, he patted Arkle on the backside as he was led away. "Goodbye, old mate," he said. He knew that defeat by Dormant must spell the end of a career that remained sacred against all comparison until Kauto Star's fourth win, in 2009, by an eye-watering 36 lengths.

Smith also has distressing memories of Desert Orchid's final appearance, in the 1991 running. The veteran was well beaten when coming down three out, and Smith has long said that he would like to spare Kauto Star that kind of indignity.

And the fact is that many of us, a year ago, could no longer see how some such exit might be avoided. Kauto Star finally seemed in decline. He would have been perfectly within his rights. Not quite three years old when first raced over hurdles, in France, he had become the first jumper to win Grade One prizes in seven different seasons. Back at Kempton, he showed none of his usual gusto as Long Run – not even born when Kauto Star won his first race in Britain, at Newbury's own Christmas meeting in 2004 – apparently gave formal notice of a changing of the guard.

Paul Nicholls, his trainer, was affronted by suggestions that the horse be retired, understandably aggrieved that anyone might presume greater concern about Kauto Star's welfare. But the horse's fans had been terrified by the horse's marrow-shaking fall in the Cheltenham Gold Cup the previous March. It did seem legitimate to fret that any future gains for Kauto Star – for all his relish for his calling – could scarcely justify the implicit risks.

His next performance, back in the Gold Cup, itself contained sufficient vestiges of his pomp to vindicate Nicholls, albeit Long Run ultimately reiterated the new pecking order. When Kauto Star was pulled up at Punchestown, however, the game seemed up. He had now been beaten in four of his last five starts.

Once again, Nicholls and Smith persevered. And they were rewarded, on the horse's comeback at Haydock last month, with a breathtaking revival. Over breakfast, Nicholls had told Ruby Walsh to let the horse bowl along in front. "Do I give him a breather?" the jockey asked. Nicholls knew he had left no margin for error in the horse's fitness. "No," he said.

In extending his Grade One spree into an eighth season, Kauto Star jumped so aggressively that Long Run became dazed by the pursuit, losing his rhythm and dropping away before rallying bravely over the final fences. The place went berserk, and it was easy to indulge Nicholls his pride and emotion. Always so open, even when sorely tested by the turn of events, the champion trainer is entitled to equal candour when proved right. And it had turned out that his faith was not blind.

Nicholls feels now that Kauto Star was never right last season. "He was making a noise, and I said to Clive that you'd give a younger horse a breathing operation," he said. "He was so lethargic. He was never going to win the King George, at any stage. But at Haydock I thought he would from the moment he went to the front."

And so the stage is set for a fourth, classic shoot-out between the old king and his young usurper – so much so that Master Minded, another top-class steeplechaser in Smith's colours, barely warrants a footnote. William Hill, the race sponsors, have favoured Long Run throughout, Nicky Henderson having apparently left him short of his peak for Haydock, with Kempton and Cheltenham in mind. But Nicholls has been cheerfully dismissive of that theory. "You're not going to run a horse as good as him, a six-year-old, in a 200-grand Grade One, and need the race too much," he said. "Long Run looked superb in the paddock. I'm sure he's going to improve, but he's got to find eight lengths with us."

There is a reciprocal certainty in Long Run's owner, Robert Waley-Cohen. "As far as we're concerned, it was a dress rehearsal," he said. "Ours is a tricky horse to motivate and get ready first time out." His silks will as usual be worn by his son, Sam – and Waley-Cohen feels those conspicuous forced errors at Haydock were misleading. "Technically, it was the horse's most proficient display," he said. "He just wasn't quite matching strides with Kauto Star in the back straight. At Kempton last year, the reverse was true. And, unlike Kauto Star, he's never fallen or been pulled up."

Both camps seem adamant that they have the overall momentum, and each would relish seeing off a rival diluting the stature of their own horse. "People normally get behind the reigning champion," Waley-Cohen observed. "They want to see a great champ, see him confirm that he is the real thing. But on this occasion everyone wants to see the old boy have a last hurrah."

No quarter will be sought or given between Walsh, the peerless professional, and a rival who runs a chain of dental practices. But Waley-Cohen believes the unsparing nature of the contest will play to Long Run's strengths. "He was outstanding at Kempton last year, and outstanding in the Feltham [for novices, over the same course and distance] the year before," he said. "There's no opportunity for a breather round there. You just go as fast as you can, for as long as you can. There's no pity, no mercy, in a King George."

Nicholls agrees that it is a myth that Kempton is a pure test of speed. In fact, he reckons it a stiffer test than Cheltenham. "There's no hiding place round there," he said. Nothing else for it, then. They'll just have to run.