James Lawton: Kauto has the love, Long Run the hunger but subplots make this Gold Cup the race of races

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The Independent Online

Yes, it is a lot to assign to the race that will always be inhabited by some of the greatest, most heart-stirring names in equine history. But then at 3.20 this afternoon there will be a compelling urge to do it.

It will be to say that there can never have been a more intriguing or so potentially rivetting running of the Gold Cup, which has had the likes of Arkle, Mill House, Dawn Run and Best Mate littering the greatest of jump races with unforgettable achievement.

Today, we have three champions and a beautiful young contender, a sleek, coppery six-year-old named Long Run, bred in France, trained in England and ridden by a young, daredevil amateur rider who even in a National Hunt jockeys' room can tell stories to chill the blood, if not make it run stone cold.

Sam Waley-Cohen has privilege and wealth in his heritage but these are not the qualities that cut the smallest shard of ice with rivals like Ruby Walsh, Sam Thomas, Paddy Brennan and, supremely, A P McCoy, who will accompany him to the start this afternoon.

The first three have champions beneath them, McCoy, the champion jockey, has the best hope of the great Irish trainer Willie Mullins, but they know that in the rising ground of the finish none of these advantages comes with guarantees.

This is because Long Run not only has youth and beauty but also the brilliant form as winner of the re-arranged King George VI Chase a few months ago, in which he stopped the horse who will pull most strongly at everyone's emotions this afternoon – Kauto Star.

Kauto Star, brave, haunting, Kauto Star... there was a time when he, in the company of Walsh, seemed to own the great Kempton Park race, and when he became the first horse to win back the Gold Cup two years ago some said that there had never been a story like it.

This was a horse that had everything, the stamina to find new ambition after starting over French jumps at the most tender age of four – the brilliance to turn his hooves with killing effect and the wild eccentricity which allowed him to treat the most threatening fences not so much as a challenge but an incitement to the wildest whimsy.

Today, though, there is a feeling that Kauto Star, at the age of 11, is maybe galloping into dangerous terrain. The suspicion is that his best has gone and can never be recalled. But then some animals, as do men, defy all apprehension, even logic, and many will come to the valley this afternoon convinced that if anyone can seize another slice of history, it is still Kauto Star.

His rider, the brilliant Walsh, is an article of deeply ingrained faith. He is a master jockey, a superb selector of the winning option, but he has never made any secret of the fact that something beyond professional calculation is involved here.

"Kauto Star is a wonder and I love him," says Walsh. It is a force which, if satisfied today, will send an unprecedented roar beating against the Cotswold hillside.

Yet if Kauto has the love, and Long Run the hunger and power of youth, it is only the beginning of the story of this race. You don't begin to exhaust the nuances of the duel between these two before having to acknowledge the impertinence of ignoring for too long the claims of two other champions – Kauto Star's stablemate Denman, who first broke his neighbour's aura when claiming the title in 2008, then lost it a year later amid concerns that a horse so honest, so willing to pour pure power into any racing equation, had stretched his great heart too far too often.

But Denman is here again, the supreme slugger ready to sweep all rivals out of the ring once more, and inevitably he will attract again his loyalist supporters.

Supporting Kauto Star and Denman is in one way a quite arbitrary matter because if Kauto warms you with the possibilities of his brilliance, Denman moves the spirit in his own, relentless way. It is a bit like choosing between Muhammad Ali or Joe Frazier, the sublime artist and the ferocious warrior. It is because we know so clearly what they both represent – the problem today is that no one is quite sure, not even their brilliant trainer Paul Nicholls, of quite what is left.

Some felt that, when the precocious Long Run announced emerging stardom in the King George VI, it was also the end of something for Kauto Star – another doubt to pile upon those that came when the reigning champion Imperial Commander exploited so strongly the fall of Kauto, one that came amid a growing conviction that something had gone out of his stride.

Imperial Commander is the dawn favourite, narrowly ahead of Long Run but when the race starts we can be sure that many will have been driven to the betting windows by the sheer force of sentiment.

It is hard to let go of the mystique of a champion, after all. Grown men wept when Ali officially entered his decline at the hands of Larry Holmes 30 years ago. For seven rounds the great man, who had looked superb going into the ring at the age of 39, was beaten to the point that you knew only his spirit, and his memory of what he once was, could possibly survive. This might be the worry of the great trainer Nicholls, whose balancing of the needs of such huge but different talents as Kauto Star and Denman is already one of the great feats of his business, something at least as remarkable as that of Michael Dickinson 28 years ago, when with Bregawn in the lead he sent the first five past the post.

Nicholls believes he can conjure a little more from the champions today, just as Nigel Twiston-Davies believes that some lacklustre days at the stable can be lifted once more on to another dimension this afternoon.

Almost impossibly, the beguiling prospects heap upon each other.

What if it should rain this morning and significantly soften the going? This would be a deluge on two of the greatest men in racing, the Irish training maestro Willie Mullins and McCoy, a frustrated figure on the first two days but the master jockey yesterday with two superb winning rides. Mullins and McCoy want the going to stay no more yielding than good to soft if Kempes is to fight his way into the great race.

There you have the extraordinary plot lines of this race of races. Mullins and McCoy are on the margins of the affair, at least at this dawn, and largely at the mercy of the weather. Yet Pandorama, the hope of another fine combination of Irish trainer and rider in Noel Meade and Paul Carberry, is expected to thrive in the rain.

There are, of course, a hundred questions and at least as many doubts but the conviction most difficult to resist is that we will hear the hooves of a new champion this afternoon and that its name will be Long Run. Another likelihood, whether it rains or not, is of a race shaped in the equine heavens.

Tips from the top: The Independent's writers predict the Gold Cup 1-2-3

Chris McGrath Racing Correspondent

1. Pandorama 12-1

2. Tidal Bay 20-1

3. Imperial Commander 7-2

James Lawton Chief Sports Writer

1. Long Run 9-2

2. Kauto Star 6-1

3. Kempes 12-1

Brian Viner Sports writer

1. Long Run 9-2

2. Denman 11-2

3. Imperial Commander 7-2

Sue Montgomery Racing Writer

1. Kempes 12-1

2. Imperial Commander 7-2

3. Tidal Bay 20-1

Hyperion Tipster

1. Kauto Star 6-1

2. Long Run 9-2

3. Imperial Commander 7-2

James Lawton correctly called yesterday's 1-2-3