A mantle of perceived invincibility is all very well but it can be heavy indeed to wear, and before Kauto Star's brave whisker-wide successful return to action here yesterday the strain on Paul Nicholls could be seen. In the downtime between the concentrated activity of getting the nine-year-old ready for the fray – the brushing, the saddling, the checking of every strap and buckle, the legging up of and handing over to Ruby Walsh – and the tension of watching six minutes-odd of slog through sticky ground and over 18 fences that ended with an agonising dénouement, the trainer was not a man for approaching.
Normally the most open and affable of individuals, he lurked alone with his thoughts close to one of the parade ring trees, doing a fair impersonation of his chosen companion, immobile in a grey-greenish coat. It was only when the announcement came that the great gelding had held on to win his 12th top-level prize by a nose, after a desperate battle with Imperial Commander, that the load lifted. Nicholls, head up and eyes dancing, went to his favourite horse and hugged him like a pony-mad kid.
During the week punters had, almost insultingly, fielded against Kauto Star, one of the grounds being that the Nicholls team had not started the campaign as infallibly as usual. When it came to it, though, Clive Smith's winner of two Gold Cups, three King George VI Chases and six other Grade 1 contests was the best-backed horse of the day, down to 4-6.
"I've had more sleepless nights this week than any I can remember," said Nicholls. "This season the horses have taken a while to come to themselves. But the best result of all was the three little words Ruby said to me when he came in. He said 'He needed it' which is exactly what I wanted to hear. You can't have them at their best for their first run of the season, you need to leave enough for improvement."
By the turn into the long straight, made the more demanding by testing underfoot conditions and a buffeting, blustering wind, the Ryanair Chase winner Imperial Commander and Kauto Star had shaken off their five rivals. Though untested over the three-mile trip Imperial Commander was ridden positively by Paddy Brennan and still held the call three out. Particularly slick jumps then put Kauto Star back in the mix and his white-nosebanded, white-blazed head showed in front in the murk. But slugging to the line Imperial Commander inched back and the pair passed the line as one. Neither jockey was sure of the outcome. "I thought I'd just got chinned," admitted Walsh, "but my horse always digs deep. My tactical decision was to test the other horse's stamina, and it paid off. Just."
Kauto Star's next target is an unprecedented fourth King George – in which he is likely to meet Imperial Commander, from the in-form Nigel Twiston-Davies yard, again – on Boxing Day. "We did want to win today, but there is a bigger picture," said Nicholls. "I did think he'd get tired but he does keep finding under pressure. This is his 12th Grade 1 win, and yet people were still knocking him during the week. I suppose it's a bit like what happens to Manchester United. But he's a proper professional and now we can fine-tune him for Kempton."
The day did not belong to him entirely, though. In the preceding stayers' handicap hurdle the Nick Williams-trained Diamond Harry produced a quite extraordinary performance under top-weight, toying with his rivals after Timmy Murphy eased up the straight and passed the line in third gear. Whether the six-year-old sticks to the smaller obstacles this term or graduates to fences, his is an exciting talent.
Though just beaten by Mr Thriller in a pulsating finish, four-year-old Starluck did little to dent his aspirations to the elite and at Ascot his contemporary, the Triumph Hurdle winner Zaynar, was even more impressive, opening his senior campaign with a six-length rout of experienced rivals to join his Nicky Henderson stablemates Binocular and Punjabi in Champion Hurdle consideration.
And on the same card Albertas Run, who chased Kauto Star home in last year's King George, bounced back to his best to take the Grade 2 feature chase from Planet Of Sound and a patently ring-rusty Voy Por Ustedes.
Those who carp at the early retirement of Flat champions are at best naive; at the highest level that game is a business, with attendant financial considerations. If it's familiarity and durability you want, then there is another branch of the sport to follow. Yesterday, today, right through to the spring, and way beyond, see the stars.