With the greatest respect to the returning Grand National hero Ballabriggs at Kelso, the horse on most minds yesterday was the battered old warrior Kauto Star. His current race, the one against time to make the line-up for the Cheltenham Gold Cup after hurting himself in practice at home, may be a virtual one, but it is nonetheless compelling. And the odds against him winning it seemed to shorten after a workout during the morning.
To the relief of his closest associates, and the wider public for whom the forthcoming Cheltenham Festival would be diminished by his absence, the 12-year-old strode out with enthusiasm, showing few of the aches and pains, the result of a heavy fall eight days earlier, that had caused his trainer, Paul Nicholls, to issue a warning about his Gold Cup participation.
Kauto Star, with Nicholls' head man, Clifford Baker, in the saddle, cantered a mile and a quarter and walked back home with a spring in his step. "He's going in the right direction very quickly," said Nicholls. "Clifford had difficulty pulling him up, which is always a good sign with the horse. And I cannot say how massively relieved I am."
Should he make it to Cheltenham, 12 days hence, Clive Smith's colourbearer will be running in the Gold Cup for the sixth time and trying to win it for the third. He is having daily physiotherapy and will be kept on the move in a bid to maintain his progress.
"He is not there yet," said Nicholls, "and things can change day by day, but this was certainly a positive step. He has a bit more of a buzz about him, and some of the old swagger has returned. When Clifford pulled him up, he didn't need to say anything. I could tell it all by the smile on his face."
The last Grand National winner to score under rules after his Aintree triumph was Bindaree, who took the 2003 Welsh version the year after his Aintree triumph. But though Ballabriggs failed yesterday, he certainly did not flop. His fourth place over two and three quarter miles, an inadequate distance for his stamina, was a more than satisfactory warm-up for the defence of his title next month.
Apart from an error at the open ditch on the second circuit, the11-year-old jumped well, throwing in a particular piece of showboating for Jason Maguire and his fans at the obstacle in front of the packed grandstands. With another enthusiastic leap at the last, he landed in front for a few strides until left behind on the long run-in by pacier, fitter rivals, headed by Master Of the Hall.
His trainer, Donald McCain, was another pleased by the day's events.
"Very happy," he said. "I warned people he'd need the run, he's had a good healthy blow and Jason was pleased with him, and we'll get a racecourse gallop into him before Aintree. It was never about today, it's all about 14 April."
Ballabriggs, around 14-1, third choice in most bookmakers' lists, for a repeat, was not the only Grand National contender beaten yesterday. At Doncaster, Junior, one of the 10-1 market leaders with Irish raider Prince de Beauchene, went under by a short head to Ikorodu Road in the three and a quarter mile Grimthorpe Chase, and at Newbury Kauto Star's stablemate Niche Market, a 20-1 Aintree shot, failed by half a length to give 22lb to Marufo.
Junior's defeat could have been victory with better luck, for David Pipe's nine-year-old was hampered when tiring trailblazer Pentiffic came down at the last. "It's all systems go now to Aintree," said jockey Tom Scudamore. "All he was short of today was another mile and a quarter."
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