Sports fans know that nostalgia is for life – not just for Christmas. Every great sporting occasion is suffused with nostalgia, embalming departed heroes in eternal youth and vitality.
So it is at Kempton today, when Kauto Star's principal antagonist will not be found among the dozen horses who stand, with varying degrees of competence, between him and an unprecedented fourth consecutive success in the William Hill King George VI Chase. Instead it will be that pale, flickering phantom of Christmas past, Desert Orchid.
With four wins in five runnings, between 1986 and 1990, the grey made this ritual his own. Nothing serves nostalgia better than ritual, of course. And here social and sporting instincts merge in what has become a Boxing Day institution as inevitable as aspirin and cold turkey. After all, by now even those who deplore the cattle run through the sales want to get the hell out of the house. They can seldom have had a better pretext than today.
Presumably there is a punter out there who backed Desert Orchid for the King George only twice – in 1987, when Nupsala beat him; and 1991, when he ended a glorious career with an ignominious fall. The sport will be indebted if this person can avoid extending his curse to Kauto Star, who has yet to be remotely menaced in this race and is odds-on to see off the horse who showed him so little respect on their reappearance at Haydock last month.
Admittedly if you came to the Betfair Chase with a blank canvas, you would struggle to depict the flat-out, last-gasp winner as one of the all-time giants of steeplechasing. If anything, Imperial Commander was unlucky not to have retrieved the lead on the line, after losing critical momentum three out.
Imperial Commander finally stifled any lingering doubts about his stamina that day, his two previous failures at three miles having been too abject to blame on the trip alone. At Punchestown, last spring, he was over the top after a hard race at the Cheltenham Festival; and in this race a year ago his stable was in terrible form.
But there remain other, legitimate causes for concern. His trainer, Nigel Twiston-Davies, scoffs at the suggestion that Imperial Commander has an aversion to right-handed tracks, but Paddy Brennan himself has admitted to some such suspicion from the saddle. More significantly, Imperial Commander has a history of running his best races when fresh, and he could hardly have had a more searching comeback to absorb than he did in heavy going at Haydock.
That has to be a massive issue. Funnily enough, Paul Nicholls has come to the conclusion that Kauto Star himself is best kept fresh, but takes the view that he was short of peak fitness for his reappearance and promises only improvement for that run. "He looks great and has come on a ton for Haydock," he says. "The idea was that race was always going to sharpen him up mentally. Two years ago, he only beat Exotic Dancer half a length at Haydock and improved. Last year he may, or may not, have won at Haydock – he didn't perform to his best – but again he improved afterwards. He has been in training a long time and a run just changes them. He looks better, and sharper, and I couldn't be happier."
If that is the case, then Kauto Star will surely outclass the rest round a course that demonstrably plays to his strengths – albeit Nicholls feels that he is better still round Cheltenham. And while flat tracks like this definitely suit Madison Du Berlais and Deep Purple ideally, the essential gulf in class is such that their only prospect of getting anywhere beyond the lower steps on the podium is for the champion to run below his best.
That is the prerogative of every thoroughbred, of course. But it was the metronomic reliability of Desert Orchid that once made this place his own, and many other champions – including Sea The Stars – likewise owed their glamour to basic constitution.
There will be other rituals, up and down these islands. The four-day Christmas meeting at Leopardstown looks like proving another humdinger, starting today with a showdown between Sizing Europe, Captain Cee Bee and Osana to determine Ireland's leading novice chaser over two miles; as well as a second appearance from the JCB Triumph Hurdle favourite, Alaivan. Back at Kempton, tense duties await Nicky Henderson, whose Cheltenham prospects will be a lot clearer after today – not least through Binocular, and exciting novices over hurdles and fences respectively, Bellvano and Long Run.
In reaching beyond its usual parish, however, the racing Christmas this year will be a one-pony trick. The crowd is to be issued with cricket-style Kauto "4" placards. They come in the expectation of something to remember. They come for the nostalgia of Christmas yet to come.
Turf account: Chris McGrath
Midnight Fantasy (7.50 Kempton)
Has a good sprinting pedigree, and has suggested in both handicap starts since winning her maiden that she can surpass this rating, picking up well but short of room. A good draw is icing on the cake.
Joe Jo Star (4.10 Carlisle)
Up another 13lb for his easy win at York, but that was his first attempt at this trip and he can extend a sequence of rapid improvement for this stable, under both codes.
*One to watch
Dungannon (A M Balding) made a promising start at Windsor on Monday, staying on very strongly for fifth after being taken off his feet early. Should be sharper next time.
*Where the money's going
Judgethemoment 8-1 from 10-1 for the John Smith's Northumberland Plate (Newcastle, Saturday) with William Hill.