Exotic pursuit lifts Kauto Star to exalted level

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The Independent Online

Any hill, rising from a plain, can dominate the landscape, but the greatest peaks break from the crags of other mountains. So while Kauto Star may have finished only half a length in front of Exotic Dancer at Haydock on Saturday, he can be measured as Mont Blanc against the Matterhorn. In the same way, it took Mill House to disclose the true altitude of Arkle, still the Everest among steeplechasers. Without Kauto Star, Exotic Dancer would have won three championship races. He is an outstanding horse in his own right, and his obstinate pursuit does not diminish Kauto Star, but exalt him.

Nobody should be deceived by the way the champion scrambled home in the Betfair Chase. He had been in front far too long, and Exotic Dancer loves to run down a target. Ridden for the first time in public by Sam Thomas, Kauto Star jumped with a confidence and flair that he has seldom shown, even under Ruby Walsh. As usual, as though deliberately, he somewhat misjudged the final fence. But his performance was characterised by a ruthlessness that stifled all the misgivings he had raised in defeat at Aintree.

Paul Nicholls, his trainer, was duly vindicated in his nonchalance over the horse's unprecedented lethargy that day. But he did himself a disservice by once again, in his moment of triumph, turning on those he perceives as critical of the horse. After the Gold Cup, he had been little short of graceless, and it fell to Walsh to salvage the dignity of the occasion. Again, on Saturday, the champion trainer's first reaction was to thumb his nose at those who had "knocked" the horse because of "one iffy-ish run".

Nicholls fully deserves the gratitude of press and public for the refreshing candour with which he runs his stable. He is not merely open, but honest. He has nothing to hide, and hides nothing. It is a small price to pay if that means he will not conceal his occasional irritation, either. After all, the unusual talents of this horse bring unusual pressures, too.

Even so, it is only fair to point out that the Turf permits very few certainties. It was hardly idiotic, before Cheltenham, for people to wonder if Kauto Star's tough campaign might catch up with him, or if his goofiness at the last fence, in successive performances, had divulged some Achilles heel. Likewise, any objective judge had every right to be perplexed by the unhappy demeanour of Kauto Star before he knuckled down at Aintree last month.

Nobody worthy of his trainer's attention has ever been foolish enough to question the horse's exceptional ability. At the weights, Kauto Star patently ran a terrific race at Aintree. But even Nicholls conceded that he had been "puzzled" by the laziness he showed that day, and his owner, Clive Smith, admitted last week that his endeavours last season might prove to have taken Kauto Star past his peak.

Having lost two of his most promising young horses at Cheltenham the previous weekend, Nicholls hardly needs reminding of the fragility of the dreams shared in jumpers. Moments before Kauto Star ran at Haydock, the popular grey Detroit City suffered a heart attack at Ascot. The monumental longevity of the horse that won the same race, Hardy Eustace, could not have expressed the paradox better. At 10, he was too courageous for a rival half his age in Afsoun.

If any sport pardons use of the term "living legend", it is jump racing. In a sense, horses like Hardy Eustace and Kauto Star already operate in a different dimension because every obstacle they jump – to a degree that somehow remains palatable – has the potential to end a career. With his skilful handling of Kauto Star, Nicholls is forging an authentic giant of the modern era. He should comfort himself that everyone wants to enjoy the ride.

There was no doubting Thomas, anyway. Again, Nicholls deserves credit. During Walsh's absence through injury, lesser men would have cravenly overlooked his young deputy and entrusted Kauto Star to more experienced hands. By seizing his chance, Thomas handsomely returned his employer's favour. None of the stable's patrons will cavil in future if they have to make do with Thomas if Walsh is unavailable.

Yesterday Thomas, 23, crowned his weekend by winning the Totesport Becher Chase over the big fences at Aintree, with a bold front-running ride on Mr Pointment. Nicholls ends the weekend on top of the trainers' championship for the first time since he won his second title last season, and that is presumably where he will stay.

The John Smith's Grand National is valuable enough to tilt the prize-money table on its head, though Nicholls has been managing pretty well without it. He rates Mr Pointment "the least exposed horse I have had for the race" and may give him only one more start before the National, for which he is now 16-1 co-favourite.

Nicholls trains perhaps the biggest danger to Kauto Star in Denman, who starts his season in the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury on Saturday. But another brilliant novice, My Way De Solzen, failed to get home at Haydock on Saturday, and Kauto Star sets a daunting standard to all comers. Given that Kempton suits him better than Exotic Dancer, even money for the Stan James King George VI Chase looks suspiciously like a minting machine.