Follow the superstars to their destiny
When the King George is finally run at Kempton tomorrow, Tony McCoy should steer dream mount Kauto Star to five on the trot
All ye racing faithful today faced the first blank Boxing Day since 1995 and only the fourth in 48 years. And the loss of at least nine of the scheduled jumping fixtures in Britain and Ireland, including King George VI Chase day at Kempton, was not only a financial blow. After Tony McCoy's elevation to Sports Personality of the Year pushed racing over the fence that divides it from the wider sporting world, the idea of a superstar jockey on a superstar horse performing on a public holiday was a gift beyond the Christmas wishes of any publicity machine.
It is to be hoped that the weather's implacable grip will ease enough to allow the serendipitous dream team of McCoy and Kauto Star to perform at Kempton tomorrow, but although the converted will still make the journey to Sunbury, the turkey-sated lay TV audience will be less captive for what may be a seminal performance.
With perfect timing, McCoy had been seconded to partner Kauto Star in the Paul Nicholls-trained gelding's bid for a fifth consecutive victory in the Grade 1 contest, the sport's second highest-profile championship steeplechase after the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Not even that white ghost of Christmas past, Desert Orchid, could achieve more than four, and his sequence was once interrupted. McCoy has never ridden Kauto Star in a race before. But through his experiences against him – notably on ill-fated Exotic Dancer – he has an inkling of the power he will have at his disposal. "Getting to him was one thing," he said, "getting by him quite another."
Jockeys are accustomed to an instant summation of a horse's character and characteristics; it's part of their job description as they hop from one mount to another. And after a getting-to-know-you session at Nicholls' Somerset base, the latest impression was favourable. Horse and rider breezed smoothly up the steep exercise strip at Ditcheat and then jumped 40 fences together and McCoy was like a kid for whom Christmas had come early. "I just can't stop smiling at the thought of getting to ride such a horse," he said.
Injuries to Kauto Star's regular rider Ruby Walsh, on board for the last four King Georges, and then Noel Fehily, who sacrificed himself after he realised a damaged wrist had not healed enough to do the important occasion justice, put the 15-times champion in the coveted saddle. He rated the 10-year-old the best performer he had seen even before he took the reins. "I never saw Arkle," he said, "but I did see Desert Orchid and I thought I'd never see another like him. This one, though, is the best. He's won two Gold Cups and four King Georges. He's tough and he's brilliant."
The white-faced bay has already won for four different jockeys since the start of his career more than seven years ago. And in the final analysis of attraction in this sport it is the horse, not the jockey, that counts.
And what Kauto Star will be trying to do is statistically very special indeed. In two centuries of record-keeping from the lowest to the highest levels in the sport worldwide, only 18 horses have won the same race five times or more. Pride of place goes to Leaping Plum, who eight times took the half-mile Grasmick Handicap at the US backwater of Fonner Park, Nebraska, most recently at the age of 12 in 2003. The four who made a race their own seven times include two jumpers of the modern era, the French chaser Al Capone in the Prix la Haye Jousselin at Auteuil from 1993 to 1999, and Risk Of Thunder, who won his last La Touche Cup over the Punchestown banks in 2002. The only chaser to win five editions of the same top-level contest in Britain is Golden Miller; his unique nap hand came in the Gold Cup from 1932 to 1936.
And still on the subject of numerical records, Kauto Star is now equal with peerless hurdler Istabraq at the top of the Grade 1 leaderboard, each with 14 victories at the highest level. Kauto Star won his first race in May 2004; his top-level sequence began just over five years ago in the two-mile Tingle Creek Chase.
His new rider is right; the horse allies the durability so promulgated by the jump-racing fraternity with a breathtaking range of talent. That he has lasted so long at the top is a combination of his own innate soundness and skilful management by Nicholls, who is of the opinion that his favourite horse is still as good as he has ever been.
Kempton's flat, fast three miles, over which he can gallop comfortably in a gear that puts a strain on others, suits him perfectly. He is rated miles clear of his rivals, who include the upwardly-mobile young Nicky Henderson stablemates Long Run and Riverside Theatre.
Kauto Star is not invincible; he mostly jumps on wings of angels but has a heartstopping habit of occasionally misjudging an obstacle; he was lucky to escape with his life when he did so in the latest Gold Cup. But McCoy, hard and insistent when necessary, also has hands of silk and huge empathy with his mounts. There seems no other course but to follow the stars to their destiny.
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