Evergreen Kauto still a star at top of festive tree
His new jockey may be man of the moment, but not even Tony McCoy will supplant Kauto Star at the top of the bill at Kempton on Boxing Day. True, the melancholy possibility remains that neither will be there, the weather having taken a discouraging turn yesterday. Assuming the meeting survives, however, McCoy would urge those who made him BBC Sports Personality of the Year to proceed now to a further breakthrough in their awareness of his sport.
For the most accomplished steeplechaser of the era, the William Hill King George VI Chase this year transcends Christmas ritual. It is a matter of history, and the passage of years – and the precarious margin between the two. Kauto Star is seeking a fifth consecutive success in steeplechasing's midwinter championship, something beyond even Desert Orchid, the grey spectre of Christmas past.
Sooner or later, however, Kauto Star must begin to betray the erosion of age. He is on the cusp of his 11th birthday. Desert Orchid, having himself won the race four times, was well beaten when he fell at the third last in 1991. He was promptly retired. Admittedly, he was a veteran then, nearly 13, and Kauto Star has been campaigned more sparingly.
Even so, his owner, Clive Smith, has distressing memories of that day, and vows not to push his own champion as far. "I wouldn't want Kauto Star to go out like that," he admits. "I want him to go out at the top."
Smith had an excruciating glimpse of the nightmare scenario when Kauto Star took that ghastly fall going for his third Cheltenham Gold Cup in March. "I was very worried," his owner says. "I thought it might be the end, even. So it was fantastic to see Ruby [Walsh] jumping back on, and riding him back to the cheers of the crowd."
In his only start since Kauto Star produced an efficient display at Down Royal last month, and Paul Nicholls, his trainer, is adamant he has yet to perceive even the faintest hint of decline. Certainly, the bookmakers have been curiously generous about Kauto Star, just two starts after the most breathtaking performance of his life, in this race last year. Timeform have him no fewer than 26lb clear on their ratings. Yet until poor Noel Fehily decided he was not fit to do justice to the biggest opportunity of his career, in a deed of excoriating honesty two days ago, the sponsors were offering Kauto Star at 11-10. Only this new association with McCoy, the punters' favourite, has now forced them into a shade of odds-on. But even that seems very fair when you remember the way he demoralised his rivals last year, carting Walsh clear to win by 36 lengths on the bridle.
The increasingly conservative strategy of Nicholls and Smith will surely keep the petrol gauge out of the red a while longer. The annals of this race are strewn with serial winners, and it is certainly tailor-made for Kauto Star. Tempted by the flat, sharp turns, the runners tend to go a hectic gallop and that enables Kauto Star to take them a place they would sooner not go.
Long Run made an impressive British debut on the equivalent card last year, but his fortunes since require a leap of faith if he is supposed to give the champion a race at level weights. Similar assumptions have to be made in favour of the Irish pair, Forpadydeplasterer and Sizing Europe, neither being established stayers. And while Riverside Theatre is progressive and adores the track, to step up in trip and beat Kauto Star himself would represent a melodrama so far-fetched that his co-owner, the splendid Jimmy Nesbitt, would generally send the script straight back to his agent.
Still, his involvement offers another boost to a sport glad to be reminding a broader public of its charms. For all that the heart goes out to Fehily – not to mention Walsh, who broke a leg last month – McCoy and Kauto Star is certainly an engaging double act. A pity, then, that reality may yet bite today when an inspection is scheduled at noon. The thaw in the snow on the frost blankets had slowed yesterday, with some of them now freezing to the turf.
So far as Kauto Star himself is concerned, however, Nicholls is certain he retains that perennial, midwinter bloom. "They're a long time retired," he observes. "At the end of the day, this horse has the best of everything at the moment, and loves what he's doing. That's why it will be a sad day when he does retire. He really is enthusiastic about life in the stable. In theory, he could run in the next three Gold Cups. But if there were any sign, at any stage, of him underperforming, we'd stop him. We all know that. But it's a long way off at the moment. I'm not even thinking about it."
Megastar (12.40 Kempton) One of the best bumper performers in Britain last season and made a lively hurdling debut at Ascot, showing just the right gusto for this sharp track.
Glenwood Knight (3.35 Kempton) Acquired this mark over hurdles, built to prove better over fences and made a sound start over an inadequate trip at Hexham last month.
One to watch
The Magic Of Rio (P D Evans) Finished last at Lingfield on Tuesday, but had had a hard race when making a promising debut for her prolific new stable only the previous day.
Where the money's going
The Nightingale is 25-1 from 40-1 with the sponsors for the William Hill King George VI Chase.
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