Connections of Kauto Star promised not to rush to any hasty judgement. Even so, there was a latent sense of valediction to his dismal performance in the Guinness Gold Cup at Punchestown yesterday.
It can be argued that Kauto Star had not shown his very best form in any of his four previous starts. Here he was never travelling with any great élan and was first off the bridle as the field grouped six fences out, and failed to respond to a couple of reminders from Ruby Walsh. His jockey sensibly wasted little time in easing down, and pulled up before the next fence, but was at least able to demonstrate to the horse's fans that he was sound by cantering him back past the stands. The old champion was warmly received as Clive Smith, his owner, led him proudly back into the parade ring.
Paul Nicholls had been vexed by suggestions that Kauto Star be retired after his odds-on defeat behind the new champion, Long Run, in his quest for a fifth King George at Kempton in January. And nor was the trainer disposed to end one of the great steeplechasing careers of the modern era on the spot. "I said to Georgie [Browne, his partner] before the race I didn't care where he finished, as long as he came back safe and sound," Nicholls said. "And after he'd jumped three or four it was obvious where he would finish. He was not firing today.
"I'd done things a bit differently with him this year, and had him fine-tuned for Cheltenham, and then might have been a bit easy with him before this. But I'm not going to make any rash decisions based on one run. You could have a six-year-old that runs badly at this time of year, and then comes back. It's hard to judge on one run but if he came back in the autumn, and ran like that, then obviously we would retire him."
Smith, however, has previously intimated that he is anxious for his new champion not to go out in any kind of unworthy decline. Bookmakers, certainly, had no hesitation in deleting Kauto Star from all ante-post betting.
The race was won by a 20-1 shot, Follow The Plan, after Roberto Goldback had made a terrible mistake and discarded his jockey when in the lead over the last.