Among the remedies available against the numbing excesses of the season, the return of Kauto Star to Kempton today surpasses not only the hike over a frozen moortop, but even the fireside tot of whisky afterwards. His performance in the Stan James King George VI Chase last year proved as bracing as any steeplechasing elixir in recent years, and most neutrals will be hoping to see him repeat the dose against just half a dozen rivals.
Admittedly Paul Nicholls, his trainer, feels that Kauto Star comes here in a suitable spirit of giving. He feels that his champion is more vulnerable round this sharp, right-handed track than anywhere else he is likely to be seen. "Obviously he won the race last season, as well as two Tingle Creek Chases round Sandown," he said. "But I do think he gets himself into a bit of trouble on these [right-handed] tracks. I'm sure that's why he made those mistakes last year."
Certainly Kauto Star made two howling errors on that last visit, and Nicholls does not consider him in the classic mould of those who have made this such a specialists' race. In 11 runnings between 1982 and 1992, for instance, it was shared by just five horses. At the same time, Kauto Star does travel with the sort of swagger that enables jumpers to hold a position round Kempton. Arguably the demands of the race suit him better than his customary foil, Exotic Dancer, who finished eight lengths behind him last year.
Just as Nicholls insists that the Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup will bring out "the ultimate" in Kauto Star, others suspect that Exotic Dancer will finally have his day there if they go a stronger gallop than last season. Either way, Nicholls respects his tenacity. "I have no doubt there'll be a day when, for whatever reason, he'll beat us," he said. "Whether he wants slower ground, I don't know, but he'll be the one we fear."
Nicholls is among those who suspect that My Way De Solzen, already a Festival winner over three miles and two, might end up being ideally suited by the intermediate distance of the Ryanair Chase. That would not disqualify him from this relative test of speed. Alan King is adamant that he was simply deceived by the ease of the horse's preparations for Haydock, and that he will be much fitter today. He looked an unusually talented novice last winter, and it would be nice to think that he could yet contribute to what seems a vintage crop of jumpers.
It takes some creative thinking to envisage Racing Demon coming up with anything radically better than when third last year, while the other three seem ineligible either in terms of stamina, class or both. The fly in the ointment might be Our Vic, who always runs so well fresh and represents a trainer in terrific form. Though unreliable, he has looked top class on his day and would be tempting but for the fact that he has been kept away from right-handed tracks since jumping left as a novice round Ascot.
Odds marginally short of evens make the favourite look perfectly respectable value in his own right. After all, it may be that the closer Exotic Dancer gets, race by race, the better he proves Kauto Star (2.30) to be.
Intimidating odds may also encourage many to oppose Harchibald (1.55) in the Stan James Christmas Hurdle, not least because he is still routinely accused of cowardice off the bridle. This is a horrible calumny. In reality, his response to the whip disappoints only those who fail to recognise his generosity up to that stage. His return from two years in the wilderness, following a variety of setbacks, was a joy to behold at Newcastle last month and he will surely outclass these rivals.
Joe Lively might take some pegging back in the Nigel Clark Feltham Novices' Chase if jumping with the same flair as at Cheltenham the other day, but that race rather fell apart around him and Barbers Shop (1.20) can make the necessary improvement after a promising start over an inadequate trip at Newbury. He has always looked the type to flourish over fences, and the same is true of Benetwood (3.05 next best) who promises to prosper for this extra distance.
At Wetherby Lothian Falcon (1.35) can untangle a knotty race for the Skybet Rowland Meyrick Chase. Though set too much to do last time, he is sustaining a progressive profile. But punters should save their best until last, as ONEFOURFUN (nap 3.35) deserves another chance to build on the improved form he showed on his reappearance. He would not be the first to do so for his impressive young trainer.
The Leopardstown meeting gets under way with two Grade One races. Just four runners line up for the Durkan Novice Chase, but these include smart prospects in Perce Rock and Sky's The Limit (2.25). Temlett (1.20) shaped well on unsuitable ground when taking his first look at hurdles and, progressive on the Flat, can prove one of the more promising juveniles in Ireland.