Kauto major doubt for Festival after fall
Having attended a memorial service for Josh Gifford just before breaking the news, Paul Nicholls was perhaps in a better position than might be supposed to keep it in due perspective. Even so, in disclosing that Kauto Star is only "50-50" to take his chance, his trainer knew that the fortnight dividing them from the Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup would suddenly stretch before his fans as a barely tolerable agony.
It is a measure of the odds already overcome by one of the greatest achievers in steeplechasing history – one whose durability is without precedent, wherever he might stand in terms of ability – that he should have been injured in such innocuous circumstances. As a rule, the old horse could be expected to complete a schooling session in his sleep. The only thing more surprising than the fall he took under Ruby Walsh at Ditcheat last Friday is that Nicholls and his staff somehow contrived to keep the accident to themselves.
The champion trainer has a justified reputation for scrupulously keeping the public informed, certainly compared with the old school. On this occasion, he evidently feared a melodramatic reaction. As things have turned out, however, the fall has proved rather more serious than he originally hoped.
Nicholls addressed the dilemma candidly in his Betfair blog. "As a trainer, it is all too easy to sit on information," he said. "Horses have so many minor worries, niggles and setbacks – most of which turn out to be nothing of long-term importance – that you could be updating on each of your string on an hourly, daily and weekly basis. But our policy is always to be up front – and especially when it is a public, once-in-a-lifetime horse, such as Kauto."
He proceeded to admit that it had been "a pretty awful fall". Though Kauto Star trotted soundly afterwards, he was plainly sore. Nicholls hoped that the horse would respond to physiotherapy, but on Wednesday night his head lad, Clifford Baker, advised him that he remained "quite stiff" and could be no better than 50-50 for the Festival.
"He is still cantering each day," Nicholls added. "But I can assure you that Kauto Star won't be going anywhere near Cheltenham unless we are all convinced that he is 110 per cent right. If there is the slightest doubt in our minds, then he stays at home. No question. We will do what is best for the horse. Always have, always will. End of story."
In his younger days, Kauto Star had a habit of making an inattentive blunder at the last fence, and two years ago took a horrifying fall in the Gold Cup itself. The 12-year-old's rejuvenation this winter, however, has been characterised by the absolute assurance of his jumping. His big rival the much younger Long Run, who beat him in the Gold Cup last year , is considered a far more hazardous conveyance, and has been unable to match the veteran's rhythm in either of their meetings this season. After an unprecedented fifth success in the King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day, Kauto Star had looked perfectly eligible to add a third Gold Cup to those he won in 2007 and 2009. It would be heartbreaking for him to drop out now.
Last season, when he lost his form, many concerned voices were calling for his retirement. However long he trains, Nicholls will never again be so emotionally attached to a horse. He should be indulged, then, if he appears to have misjudged the extent of Kauto Star's problem last week – and, in consequence, the need to make it public.
"It will be devastating for all concerned if Kauto Star couldn't line up on 16 March," he said. "But one thing I think we have all learnt with Kauto is never to write him off. Yes, having this setback so close to the Festival is clearly a major concern. But he's a hard so-and-so, too, and it wouldn't surprise me in the slightest if he was back firing on all cylinders before Cheltenham."
But Ladbrokes cut Long Run to even money from 9-4, and eased Kauto Star to 4-1 from 5-2. The novice Grands Crus would almost certainly switch from the RSA Chase to the Gold Cup if Kauto Star defects, and is 6-1 from 7-1.
Chris McGrath's Nap
Justazippy (4.15 Doncaster) Could be value against a favourite making a quick turnaround in very different conditions, herself improving with every start and always going best last time.
Nataani (3.30 Newbury) Has shaped well on both starts over fences, especially when pulling clear of the rest in a tongue-tie last time, and extra distance can prompt further progress.
One to watch
Iron Chancellor (Alan King) Will be a fair price for the four-miler at the Festival and his trainer says he was all at sea on a sharp track before rallying at Fakenham last time.
Where the money's going
The Package is 8-1 from 12-1 with Coral for the JLT Speciality Handicap Chase at Cheltenham; also in demand are Divers, 8-1 from 10-1 for the Byrne Plate, and Al Ferof, 9-2 from 11-2 for the Racing Post Arkle Chase.
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