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Hush of nervous anticipation awaits as Kauto Star takes stage for final rehearsal

The premise that Kauto Star walks on water has been taken to literal extremes by the Ascot management, who have poured enough on to the track to ensure "safe" ground for their big race this afternoon. If that seems a fairly extreme precaution for February, then so be it. You would feel a bit of a chump if you let the outstanding chaser of recent years take himself off to Wincanton instead.

After all, the newly laid turf in the straight at Ascot remains notoriously thirsty, and the weather earlier in the week would have been ideal for the royal meeting in June. At this rate the swifts will be returning three months early. Still, that is no reason for anyone to play the first cuckoo of the spring by suggesting that Kauto Star should start at the same sort of odds today as did Denman at Newbury last week.

Be in no doubt, Denman had a far easier task in his own rehearsal for their showdown in the Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup. Now racing must hold its collective breath and hope that Kauto Star can preserve the perfect, fragile symmetry of their rivalry.

As any literate sportsman will know by 14 March, the two horses are both in the care of the champion trainer, Paul Nicholls, and housed in adjacent stalls. Their first competitive encounter, on neutral ground at Cheltenham, will utterly dominate build-up to the Festival. Denman did his part last week, mocking three inferiors with that pitiless gallop of his. He does, increasingly, look an ideal type for the particular demands of the Gold Cup, but today Kauto Star gets the chance to remind everyone of the exacting standard he set in that race last year.

It should not be forgotten, however, that Kauto Star produced his most ungainly performance of the season at this stage last year, in the very same race that Denman won at Newbury. Nicholls, of course, produced him as sharp as ever on the big day at Cheltenham, but there is the decided look of a banana skin to the Commercial First Ascot Chase.

For one thing, even the undiminished swagger of his second success in the King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day did not discourage Nicholls from reiterating his belief that Kauto Star is uncomfortable racing right-handed. And his two ablest rivals could, in contrast, hardly be more at home at Ascot – Racing Demon having, conversely, long resented left-handed tracks, and Monet's Garden having won this race in good style last year.

The Cumbrian grey went on to beat Kauto Star himself in that indecipherable race at Aintree in October. On that occasion, of course, Kauto Star was short of fitness and still made a decent fist of trying to concede 14lb, whereas today they meet on level terms. But while Racing Demon was again put in his place in the King George, he is better over this kind of distance and could certainly make a nuisance of himself.

If Nicholls has again left himself plenty of slack for Cheltenham, Kauto Star would be perfectly within his rights to go easy on the flair today. He could even be exonerated defeat. But for those hoping that Kauto Star and Denman can win many new converts to the sport, over the next 27 days, today is an exercise in sink-or-swim.

Usurped King ready to stake his claim

Two King Georges? One Gold Cup? Pah. How hard can it be? Kauto Star won't even be the first horse with that kind of CV to run this afternoon, with Kicking King returning to Gowran Park – scene of that remarkably promising comeback last month – for the Red Mills Chase.

Admittedly the two horses that allowed him to set the pace that day, before joining him in a sprint for home, have both run tamely since. But Kicking King at least showed plenty of spirit in his galloping and jumping, apparently impervious to the tendon injury that had menaced his career fully two years previously.

If he is to have any credible chance of retrieving his crown from Kauto Star, of course, Kicking King must make the most of the 7lb he receives from Hi Cloy today. There will be no such charity from the opposition at Cheltenham.

There is also a hurdles trial in the same sponsorship at Gowran, where the obvious credentials of Jazz Messenger place uncomfortable focus on the awful form of his stable. It is not uncommon for Noel Meade to lose some momentum in the second half of the season, but he has not saddled a winner since New Year's Day and acknowledges that he has been dealing with some kind of problem.

Success has never spoiled Meade, and the same will be true of his present frustrations. He runs another of his top hurdlers, Aitmatov, at Navan tomorrow. Let's hope the yard can get back on an even keel in time for the Festival, where it is still owed many better days.

Wichita Lineman back on main road

Another powerful yard that has struggled to sustain a prolific start to the season is that of Jonjo O'Neill. Mind you, we could all do with problems like his, with 93 winners on the board so far, and there have been increasing signs of renewal over the past month.

O'Neill, moreover, has historically tended to get his horses to the Festival in peak form. Wichita Lineman (1.05) is therefore a confident choice to come back to the boil on his return to three miles at Haydock today, having looked ravenous for the extra distance when running so well at Cheltenham on New Year's Day. Nobody stokes a horse's fire like Tony McCoy, of course, but this is a deserved opportunity for the injured champion's deputy, Richard McGrath.

Estate (2.10) looks sure to score for his new stable, that of David Pipe, sooner rather than later, while the most valuable prize of the day, the Red Square Vodka Gold Cup, can fall to PHILSON RUN (nap 2.45). Fourth in the Grand National at 100-1 last year, he made a very promising resumption off this mark at Warwick, travelling well until found out by two late errors. Still lightly raced for a horse of his years, he proved at Aintree that he does not need heavy ground after all.

Moloney's tip in the air for Merry Music

With Osana being kept fresh for Cheltenham, there seems little prospect of the Bathwick Tyres Kingwell Hurdle at Wincanton yielding a fresh threat to Sizing Europe. Katchit has looked no less willing since introduced to his seniors this season, but has not proved quite so difficult to beat – Osana himself having given him a good hiding at Cheltenham last time.

So preference is instead for Blythe Knight (3.40), much improved in the skilled hands of John Quinn over the past year or so, and freshened up after disappointing on his return to hurdles in December. He had cruised past Osana at Aintree in the spring and, at 25-1, could yet prove the best value against the Irish in the Smurfit Champion Hurdle.

The most intriguing prospect on the Wincanton card is in the very last race, however. Paul Moloney must have been pretty taken with Merry Music (next best 4.50) when he rode him at Leicester in December, because he is prepared to jump into a helicopter after riding Racing Demon at Ascot to be sure of getting here in time. Merry Music travelled well for a long way under Moloney, before tiring on his first run for a year, and again promised more to come under another jockey last time. A bumper winner at the Galway Festival in his youth, he could prove very well treated among this rabble.