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

peopleIt seems you can't silence Katie Hopkins, even on Christmas Day...
Arts and Entertainment
tvChristmas special reviewed
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
tvOur review of the Doctor Who Christmas Special
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Jenna Coleman as Clara Oswald in the Doctor Who Christmas special
tvForget the rumours that Clara Oswald would be quitting the Tardis
Arts and Entertainment
Japanese artist Megumi Igarashi showing a small mascot shaped like a vagina
Life and Style
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: Stanley Tucci, Sophie Grabol and Christopher Eccleston in ‘Fortitude’
tvSo Sky Atlantic arrived in Iceland to film their new and supposedly snow-bound series 'Fortitude'...
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen delivers her Christmas message
newsTwitter reacts to Her Majesty's Christmas Message
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

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketing Controller (Financial Services)

£70000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketi...

Day In a Page

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all