There is maybe nothing quite like a brave and brilliant racehorse to lift the mood of a nation, especially one that is embattled and weary of bad news.
It means that for a little while this afternoon in this Gloucestershire valley Kauto Star is contending for more than an unprecedented comeback in the great race whose history insists that when reigning champions fall it is for ever.
Along with the Gold Cup, the ultimate test of the finest blood in National Hunt racing, the nine-year-old might well take possession of some of the longest and loudest cheers ever to beat against the encircling hills.
Indeed, the bookmakers are emphatic that the history Kauto is a 2-1 favourite to run into the ground – the three miles and two and a half furlongs are likely to suit him perfectly, being on the good side of soft – was shaped by different animals, and radically different circumstances.
Twenty beaten champions, including the hugely popular and marvellously arrogant Desert Orchid and the fine winner of 1963, Mill House, have attempted to do what most believe is comfortably within the stride of the latest challenger. But the grey, extrovert "Dessie" never really enjoyed the rolling, anticlockwise course here as much as his favourite battleground of Kempton Park, and when Mill House came to defend his crown he found himself pitted against something rather more than a formidable young gun. He fell to an equine god named Arkle.
This afternoon Kauto Star, relatively speaking, merely has to confirm the suspicion that his conqueror Denman was in fact the victim of the great collision which had been anticipated by the cognoscenti of jump racing more eagerly than any race since Arkle's first appearance in the Gold Cup.
Kauto Star-Denman was supposed to be the kind of epic battle that would break either the heart or the body of the loser, and when Denman delivered his crushing performance, there was not much doubt in many minds that Kauto would never be the same again. The loser had been a beautiful idea, a leap of hope in his brilliant running and wild, heart-stopping technique of jumping the big fences, but his 2007 triumph, when he brought a sudden, terrible hush to the valley when he seemed intent on running through rather than over the last fence, was swiftly consigned to history when Denman was led into the winning enclosure, a mighty bruiser who had pummelled the once bright into some distant corner of the racing constellation.
This morning we can only ponder the irony that it is nearly certain now that it was Denman who took the most serious wounds.
An irregular heartbeat, and a deeply disappointing last outing at Kempton Park – where Kauto Star gloriously annexed his third straight King George Vl Steeplechase on Boxing Day – is perhaps not quite the legacy that was anticipated a year ago.
Though respect for past achievement, and the possibility that his health problems will evaporate this afternoon, keeps Denman in the running, he is third favourite at 11-2, it is the horizons of Kauto Star which this morning seem most untrammelled – and thrilling.
Last year, trainer Paul Nicholls faced the challenge of Solomon when choosing between his two leading candidates, but he was honest about his heavy leaning to the power of Denman. This year Nicholls' position is almost precisely reversed and is also marked by a deep sense that the quality of Kauto has always been acknowledged just a little too sparingly.
He speaks with some anger, for such an amiable man, and also with more than a hint of a mea culpa over his own misreading of the nature of a national hero.
Nicholls says, "Over a period of time so much poppycock has been spoken about Kauto Star. I like to think I know him better than most and I remain convinced that the key to this horse is having him fresh and well. It was a mistake running him in the Ascot Chase before last year's Gold Cup – it definitely took the edge off him.
"We have set our stall out differently this time, and he has just been ticking over since Christmas. The ground is not an issue – it was barely raceable when he won at Down Royal [the little track in Northern Ireland which lies in the shadow of the grim Maze prison] and bottomless when he won his second King George. If he is right on the day the going is irrelevant. The Gold Cup is a gruelling race that left its mark on Denman for several months – yet since Kauto Star won his crown he has captured two more King Georges."
What we have here, and the prospect of it will soon be filling even this valley which for so long has gorged itself on the most superior sporting spectacle with a rare anticipation, is a surge of belief in the regained brilliance of a great and engaging horse.
If there was any need for additional supporting evidence that the great comeback is indeed about to happen, it was provided eloquently enough in yesterday's big race, when Kauto's partner this afternoon, Ruby Walsh, drove Big Buck's to victory over the favourite Kasbah Bliss of France in the Ladbrokes World Hurdle. Walsh, the only National Hunt rider who isn't required to genuflect when A P McCoy comes into a room, collected his fifth win of the Festival with a touch that was as exquisite as any he has delivered in his long residence at the shoulder of the greatest jump jockey of all time.
Walsh, who had the chance to ride the favourite Denman last year but elected to stay with a champion on the ropes, says of Kauto, "He is a wonderful horse; you ride him and, though he has his odds ways, you just have to love him."
There is, though, one last question that cannot be ignored. If Kauto Star is redeemed, is it not possible that Denman will find some of his old power? History insists that there is indeed such a possibility. However, in the valley the heart is emphatic. Kauto Star will shine again.
Kauto takes on history
Kauto Star has not only 15 rivals to turn over this afternoon, but also a weighty page of history. Twenty past Gold Cup winners have lost their title and then come back on a retrieval mission, but none has made it third time lucky. The one who came closest was Linwell, who with better fortune could have notched a hat-trick. He won in 1957, was brought down three out when going easily the following year, and was badly hampered by a faller at the last when second in 1959.
In truth, most of the try and try again brigade faced a hopeless task, past their sell-by dates against younger, more dashing opposition. The latest was See More Business, like Kauto Star resident at Manor Farm Stables in Somerset, who was 12 when he finished a gallant third at 40-1 seven years ago. Only three of the 20 started favourite to regain their crowns.
After 60 years an owner, Queen has first Gold Cup runner
The Queen's passion about horses is no secret; she has been charmed by all things equine ever since "Grandpapa England" – King George V – supplied her first pony when she was four. As far as racing goes, the Flat has been her sphere, an interest fostered by being taken as a child to watch her father George VI's two top-class colourbearers Big Game and Sun Chariot, winner of four Classics between them in 1942.
Since she took over the royal bloodstock in 1952, she has enjoyed high-profile success on the Flat with horses like Aureole, Hopeful Venture, Highclere and Dunfermline, and has a fancied candidate for this year's Derby in Free Agent. Today, Barbers Shop, the first horse to carry her colours in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, is a 12-1 shot to dethrone Denman.
The jumping scene has long been associated with the late Queen Mother and Barbers Shop was bred by her. But the Queen's first racehorse was a jumper. In 1949 the Queen Mother, then Queen Elizabeth, acquired Monaveen, to race in joint ownership with her 23-year-old daughter. And when the gelding had his first race, at lowly Fontwell, for the pair, he carried Princess Elizabeth's newly registered colours of "scarlet, purple hooped sleeves and black cap". And in true fairy-tale fashion, he won.
Monaveen won thrice more for his owners, but Aintree, rather than Cheltenham, was his natural home. He finished second in the 1949 Grand Sefton and fifth to Freebooter in the 1950 Grand National.
By the time the next horse deemed suitable for Royal ownership, Manicou, came along Princess Elizabeth was about to become a mother for the second time and decided not to take a share, and the racing paths of the two women diverged. Manicou, carrying the Queen Mother's pale blue, buff and black colours, became the first royal runner in a Cheltenham Gold Cup, when unplaced in 1951. He was followed in the steeplechasing blue riband by The Rip, unplaced in 1962, and Game Spirit, third to Captain Christy and The Dikler in 1974.
Her support of jumping was one of the catalysts in its growth in popularity post-war and, although her only winner at the Festival was Antiar in 1965, she had Worcran and Makaldar placed in the Champion Hurdle.
Along with the Queen Mother's other jumpers, the Queen inherited Barbers Shop as a three-week-old foal seven years ago. Appropriately, the first winner from the batch as she returned to her racing roots was a novice chaser named First Love.
Sue MontgomeryReuse content