Esprit may reassert traditional values against old guard

 

It would not do justice to either horse to conclude that the heart says Kauto Star and the head Long Run – and not just because an instinct in favour of Quel Esprit will ultimately override them both. Long Run, certainly, deserves a place in our hearts. And Kauto Star, by rewriting all its rules, has more or less wrecked the heads of punters properly versed in Cheltenham Festival orthodoxy.

According to everything they once knew, no horse with so many miles on the clock should still be strutting around like this. But the ageless champion's career has been prolonged so wonderfully that even those uncomfortable with fatuous attempts to identify him as, say, "the best since Arkle" will accept that he may have no precedent, measured by durability alone.

As such, those who persist in opposing him today in his quest to add the 2012 Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup to those he won in 2007 and 2009 will require a degree of incorrigibility. And, if he confounds their assumptions yet again, they know that Paul Nicholls will not miss the chance to rebuke their lack of faith.

The champion trainer has been spectacularly vindicated for persevering with a veteran who, last season, finally seemed to register the erosion of time. Having previously seemed invulnerable to attrition, Kauto Star ended his campaign with a lifeless performance at Punchestown. He had then won only one of his five latest starts. Nicholls was grievously affronted by suggestions that the horse should be retired, told everyone to mind their own business, and freshened him up to bring the house down in both starts this term – on each occasion beating Long Run, the horse who usurped him in the King George VI Chase and Gold Cup last season.

His rejuvenation, in winning the Betfair Chase and then his fifth King George, could not have been more vivid. Ridden boldly up with the pace, Kauto Star jumped with more exuberance than ever. It came as a profound shock, then, to learn that he had taken a heavy schooling fall just three weeks before the race. For a while, Nicholls feared that he was only 50:50 to line up. Characteristically, however, Kauto Star soon shrugged off the drama.

More pertinent, perhaps, is the form of the yard, which has had several disappointments this week. Even if Kauto Star proves himself in top form, however, it is possible that he may not see out the hill quite so well these days. Both Haydock and Kempton are all about speed nowadays, and Nicholls had him primed to run for his life – or his career, at any rate – on his reappearance. Long Run, in contrast, made another of his ring-rusty comebacks. At Kempton, Ruby Walsh rather seized the initiative and Long Run's powerful finish promised that things might turn out differently over the longer distance and stiffer finish today.

Long Run has since won at Newbury and so boosted the morale of horse and rider, who insisted his mount was merely idling in front. But the way Burton Port was suddenly breathing down his neck made it possible to suspect that Long Run has reached something of a plateau. And while he has never failed to complete, the fact is that his jumping round this course in particular – despite the excellence of his amateur rider, Sam Waley-Cohen – has been strewn with errors.

For a long time, it was axiomatic that Gold Cup winners tended to consume too much of their vitality to retain the trophy. As for regaining it, Kauto Star was the very first to do so, and now he is being asked to do it all over again at the age of 12. It would not be surprising to see a narrowing in the gulf that apparently divides the big two from the rest, in both the ratings and the odds.

Of those trying to leap that abyss, none looks more eligible than Quel Esprit. After riding him to win at Leopardstown last month, Walsh was clear that the grey remained a long way short of the old warrior he would ride today. He may not be surprised, however, should Quel Esprit maintain his progressive profile with a career best today.

His failure to complete three of his four chases as a novice is wholly misleading. True, he made an inattentive error when still going strongly in the lead at the third from home here last year, in the RSA Chase, but his trainer, Willie Mullins had actually considered him the best jumper among all his novices.

Certainly, Quel Esprit has been impeccable this time round, not least when making his breakthrough in the Hennessy Gold Cup. Strictly, the field barely measured up to Grade One standard and he did seem to be running low on fuel as he held on by only a couple of lengths. But the way he had initially put them to the sword emphasised that he has a very high cruising speed, and more patient tactics on this spring ground may permit him to outrun his odds.

A similar leap forward for Synchronised in another Leopardstown Grade One came as rather more of a surprise. Beaten in the Midlands National this time last year, he disclosed a different side in the Lexus Chase and is clearly not wholly dependent on soft ground. But conditions will be pretty lively by now and there may be better value about Weird Al, still unexposed for his flourishing stable and best after a break, and Burton Port, if not recoiling from his comeback against Long Run.

But Quel Esprit has all the assets you would traditionally seek in a Gold Cup winner. Entering his prime at eight, he is a bold jumper who will not get outpaced. And it is not as if decades of lore, on account of a single aberration in Kauto Star, must be discounted for ever.

What's in a name

The Giant Bolster (Gold Cup)

A fearsome ogre of Cornish legend who dies after being tricked into filling a bottomless pool with his lifeblood.

Weird Al (Gold Cup)

Singer-songwriter Weird Al Yankovic.

Olofi (County Hurdle)

Supreme god of the Santeria, an Afro-Carribean religion that grew out of the slave trade.

Kid Cassidy (Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Chase)

Character in Marvel Comics, boss of the Nightriders gang.

Dan Breen (Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys' Hurdle)

Commandant of the Third Tipperary brigade of the IRA, later a Fianna Fail politician – 10,000 turned up at his funeral in Donohill in 1969.

Mount Benulben (Albert Bartlett Novices Hurdle)

A peak in Co Sligo written of by W B Yeats, who is buried in nearby Drumcliffe Churchyard.

Sue Montgomery

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