Perhaps only the most stubborn punters will still be persevering with the form book, after some of the results earlier in the week. As they contemplate the Festival's climax, however, they can surely return it to the shelf. For the outcome, this time, is clearly legible in the stars.
Uncannily, it was precisely 10 years ago today that a mare named Kauto Relka gave birth to a colt foal on a small stud, Le Lion d'Angers, in western France. The coincidence, to many, would suggest that destiny has summoned Kauto Star, not only to another Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup, but also to the aid of those striving to bring a sport from the periphery of mass attention.
These evangelists also perceive some benign design in the fact that Denman, the only horse to have beaten Kauto Star in the past three Gold Cups, should be housed in the adjacent stall. Their trainer is adamant neither was quite at his peak on the day he was beaten by his next-door neighbour. As such, this was always going to be the decider – and, back in November, it really did look too close to call.
Denman, having suffered a pulmonary disorder last winter, amazed Paul Nicholls when regrouping to chase home Kauto Star in the Gold Cup. And his reappearance success – one of the great weight-carrying performances in the Hennessy Gold Cup – confirmed that he was right back to his belligerent best. Only the previous week, moreover, Kauto Star had scraped through an undignified skirmish with Imperial Commander on his own reappearance, at Haydock. Could this be the first intimation of decline?
Such concerns proved laughable when Kauto Star produced the most visually astonishing exhibition of his career at Kempton on Boxing Day. He was simply murderous, demoralising his opponents with his all-round gusto before hurtling clear in the straight. He looked better than ever.
The ball was back in Denman's court. And, asked to dispatch a gentle lob at Newbury last month, he missed it altogether. Ridden for the first time by Tony McCoy, he made an appalling mistake four out and could not recover from a worse one at the next. Denman was lucky to get back to his feet with only his reputation damaged.
Even before his first blunder, McCoy had been dismayed by Denman's failure to see off his pursuers, and plenty have since claimed he was already beaten. Harry Findlay, the professional gambler who co-owns Denman, greets that theory with a snort of derision. "All these people, I hope they were laying him at 1-20 on Betfair," he says. "He was two and a half lengths clear, and far from beat. Three times in the Hennessy he looked under pressure, and he ended up winning well."
At the same time, Findlay acknowledges that his own confidence has disintegrated because of what happened at Newbury. He dwells unhappily on Denman's quirky nature, and admits that he would not be especially surprised should the horse simply refuse to get involved some day.
It is amazing quite how unanimously the horse has been abandoned. Assuming Kauto Star shows his own best form, however, he may be invulnerable to whichever Denman turns up. Findlay pins his hopes on a slog, but the conditions make that seem unlikely now. "Yes, the other problem is the bloody ground," he grumbles.
Imperial Commander is best fresh, as he showed when unlucky not to beat Kauto Star at Haydock, and he loves this track. Nicholls, however, is adamant Kauto Star was nowhere near fit at Haydock. He runs an improver himself in Tricky Trickster, who will presumably not be recklessly exposed to the early pace with his main priority in mind, at Aintree next month. He could run into a place. But the one horse you would want to back for an ordinary Gold Cup – one, in other words, where the standard was less merciless than that set by Kauto Star – is Cooldine.
He adored the demands of the novice championship here last year and his trainer predicts another big step forward after that encouraging rehearsal at Leopardstown last time. He is an excellent bet to produce a career best, albeit that is unlikely to be good enough – unless Kauto Star, on his birthday, unexpectedly begins to feel his age.
Golden heroes: The very best - and worst
Kauto Star ended last season with a Timeform rating of 184 and is likely to finish this one even higher. A third Gold Cup would put him alongside Arkle, Cottage Rake and Best Mate in terms of quantity, but as far as quality is concerned, he is already ahead of that last two.
Best Gold Cup winners
1. Arkle (1964-66) rated 212
The chaser by whom all others are judged. Won his three Gold Cups by an aggregate 55 lengths.
2. Easter Hero (1929-30) 190
Posted best performance carrying 12st 7lb into second in the 1929 National despite a twisted shoe acting like a drag anchor.
3. Golden Miller (1932-36) 188
Five times a Gold Cup winner – would have won six but 1937 race was snowed off. Only horse to win Gold Cup and National in the same year, 1934.
4. Desert Orchid (1989) 187
"Dessiemania" obscured the fact he was one of the finest chasers – champion for five consecutive seasons.
5. Mill House (1963) 187
Had a moment of glory at Cheltenham but won a Hennessy and a Whitbread. His misfortune was to be foaled in same year as Arkle.
The worst Master Smudge (1980) 145
Finished second but was awarded the race weeks later after Tied Cottage was disqualified.
Jockey Ruby Walsh
Trainer Paul Nicholls
Owner Clive Smith
Total starts 33 (20 wins)
Grade One wins 13
DOB 19 March 2000
Total prize-money £2,012,654
Jockey Tony McCoy
Trainer Paul Nicholls
Owner Paul Barber
Total starts 20 (15 wins)
Grade One wins 4
DOB 17 April 2000
Total prize-money £904,074Reuse content