Kauto Star must fly in the face of history for reunion with old rivals

Travelling is key on the uncompromising Cheltenham climb and for previous Gold Cup winners it has proved an uphill struggle, writes Sue Montgomery

One of the most disarming remarks on the road to the equine extravaganza in the Cotswolds that starts on Tuesday came from jockey Mattie Batchelor in the wake of the victory of Carruthers, his mount in a race at Ascot. Asked if he thought the gelding was that elusive beast, a "Cheltenham horse", the journeyman grinned and shrugged. "You're asking the wrong person," he said. "How would I know?"

The self-deprecating Batchelor, more used to provincial rep than the glittering stage of this week's Festival, may yet find out when the exciting, bold-leaping Carruthers contests one of the novice championships, Wednesday's RSA Chase. But over to some of his higher-profile weighing room colleagues for the qualities needed in the most intense of arenas.

Over four days and 26 races – 12 of them Grade Ones, culminating in the Gold Cup on Friday – very little quarter is given, with glory and £3.56 million at stake. "Everything happens that little bit quicker this week," said Ruby Walsh, the meeting's leading rider for two of the past three years, "and things are so much easier for you if you have a horse who can travel. If you're travelling, you've got tactical speed to play with, which can be key in big, competitive fields."

Nothing to do with Thomas Cook. A horse who is travelling through a race is one who is galloping within his comfort zone. "If you're travelling," said Tony McCoy, "then you're balanced. And if you're balanced, you jump better, in your own rhythm. You can ride your own race."

The longer a horse can travel in a race the better. Then other attributes kick in, particularly up Cheltenham's famed against-the-collar finish, a home run that can turn the most willing legs to jelly. "If you can get to the bottom of the hill and still have a gear left, it's not so daunting," said Choc Thornton, who rode four Festival winners two years ago. "But otherwise it's a long way home. You need a horse with a lot of heart. And all the way round you probably need more luck than normal."

Walsh is favourite with the bookmakers to retain his Cheltenham title. The 29-year-old Irishman has the pick of the rides from the leading stables in Britain – that of Paul Nicholls – and Ireland – that of Willie Mullins – which is akin to playing simultaneously for Manchester United and Barcelona.

Among his scheduled partners are two of the most charismatic horses of the week, Master Minded and Kauto Star. Both are trained by Nicholls, both owned by Clive Smith. Master Minded will start long odds-on to retain his crown in Wednesday's Queen Mother Champion Chase; Kauto Star is favourite to regain his in the Gold Cup.

Twelve months ago, talk was all of the great head-to-head between the then reigning Gold Cup champion and his stablemate Denman, the contender. It was Denman who famously prevailed, but the tide – in the collective guise of wellbeing, racecourse form and underfoot conditions – seems to be running in Kauto Star's favour this time. Back to that business of travelling. "Last year I always seemed to be squeezing him along," said Walsh. "The ground was sticky and he'd had a race in February, after the King George. This time he'll be fresh. He's been ducking and bucking at home, and seems as good as he's ever been."

The athletic, white-faced nine-year-old will need to be. Apart from his rivals, Kauto Star must overturn a weighty page of history. Although six horses have won more than one Gold Cup since the race was instigated in 1924, none has ever won one back.

Twenty have tried, most recently another Nicholls inmate, See More Business, seven years ago. He finished a gallant third but, at 40-1, was not seriously fancied. However, Mont Tremblant (fourth at his second attempt and fourth again at his third), Pas Seul (second and fifth) and Forgive 'N' Forget (third and seventh), who all started favourite, and Desert Orchid (third and third) and Jodami (second and eighth), second market choices, were.

The opposition to Kauto Star includes Denman and another from Manor Farm, last year's Gold Cup third Neptune Collonges, plus perennial opponent Exotic Dancer, the eyecatchingly upwardly mobile Madison Du Berlais and the Queen's first Gold Cup runner, Barbers Shop. And, intriguingly, the 2006 hero War Of Attrition, who has overcome injury. It will be the first time since 1958 that three former winners will face each other; then it was Gay Donald, Limber Hill and Linwell, who were upstaged by Kerstin.

The Champion Hurdle, too, is something of an old comrades' reunion. As with the Gold Cup, last year's first three, Katchit, Osana and Punjabi, are due to turn up again on Tuesday, and the two-miler may also provide an unprecedented clash between four former winners, with Sublimity, Brave Inca and Hardy Eustace joining Katchit. Only one horse has ever regained the title, Comedy Of Errors 34 years ago.

However, the favourite in what is likely to be one of the largest-ever fields (a record-equalling 24 are still engaged) is one of the young guns, McCoy's mount Binocular, a five-year-old unbeaten this season and possessed of lightning pace and a notably slick technique in the air. But the sole defeat over hurdles for Nicky Henderson's charge came up that uncompromising Cheltenham climb as a novice last year. Travelling hopefully is one thing, arriving quite another.

Four worth a flutter

Tuesday At 33-1 Brave Inca, the 2006 winner and 2007 runner-up and one of the most difficult horses in training to outbattle, merits each-way support in the Champion Hurdle (3.20).

Wednesday If the rain comes, the giant Mikael D'Haguenet, winner of his last four starts by an aggregate 22 lengths, can prove himself a future star in the Ballymore Properties Novices' Hurdle (2.05).

Thursday After falling when going well over course and distance in January, Ballydub had a confidence-booster next time out and is on an upward curve for the Pertemps Final Hurdle (2.05).

Friday Already a winner at Cheltenham and at the top level, Walkon can combine the two in the Triumph Hurdle (1.30), a contest that is something of a minefield for punters, on the final day of the Festival.

Sue Montgomery

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
food + drink
Life and Style
Shoppers in Covent Garden, London, celebrate after they were the first to buy the iPhone 6, released yesterday
Liam Payne has attacked the media for reporting his tweet of support to Willie Robertson and the subsequent backlash from fans
peopleBut One Direction star insists he is not homophobic
Life and Style
healthFor Pure-O OCD sufferers this is a reality they live in
Arts and Entertainment
A bit rich: Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey
tvSeries 5 opening episode attracts lowest ratings since drama began
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck stars as prime suspect Nick Dunne in the film adaptation of Gone Girl
filmBen Affleck and Rosamund Pike excel in David Fincher's film, says Geoffrey Macnab
Life and Style
Warner Bros released a mock-up of what the new Central Perk will look like
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Dunham
booksLena Dunham's memoirs - written at the age of 28 - are honest to the point of making you squirm
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden sings his heart out in his second audition
tvX Factor: How did the Jakes - and Charlie Martinez - fare?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Year 2 Teacher - Maternity cover

£120 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Luton: Year 2 maternity cover, startin...

KS1 Teacher

£95 - £150 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Key Stage 1 teacher require...

Upper KS2 Teacher

£120 - £150 per day: Randstad Education Birmingham: Upper Key Stage 2 teacher ...

English Teacher

£110 - £130 per day + ?110 - 130: Randstad Education Reading: English Teacher ...

Day In a Page

A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments