You knew what to expect from the din even when Kauto Star passed the winning post with a circuit still to go, a nose in front of Nacarat – the grey whose share of the lead, through the first lap, had almost seemed suggestive of some spectral escort from Desert Orchid. And now the ghost of Christmas past has at last been exorcised, his four wins in steeplechasing's midwinter championship surpassed in unforgettable fashion by the evergreen Kauto Star.
A giddy sense of privilege coursed through the packed stands, like a swig from the hip flask on a day of melancholy solstice grey. As more than 20,000 exulted in the ageless veteran's return, many wearing scarves in his owner Clive Smith's colours, they must have thought of querulous millions trapped in stale sitting rooms around the country. Times may be hard, but the year that gave the Turf a great Flat champion in Frankel now draws to a close with one of the most accomplished steeplechasers of all time.
A fifth William Hill King George VI Chase confirms the place of Kauto Star in the sport's pantheon, if not as its greatest champion, then certainly its most durable. In fact, on the cusp of his 12th birthday, he looked as vibrant and indomitable as ever. Though Long Run rallied bravely, Kauto Star never looked like yielding once Ruby Walsh had pressed for home a mile out.
The odds against such epoch-making longevity could be measured by twin contrasts. First there was the poignant sight of Master Minded, representing the same owner and trainer as the winner, being led sore-footed from the track by Daryl Jacob. He had been pulled up with a career-threatening injury. Walsh, who had been sharing his joy with the crowd, spotted Jacob and they exchanged salutes. Here, in identical raiment, were two men measuring the narrow margin between those twin impostors, triumph and disaster – and the precarious path by which Kauto Star must have picked his way towards this unprecedented summit.
Then there was the memory of the way Long Run, that impudent young pretender, had appeared to usurp his dominion here last season. A distant third that day, Kauto Star had seemed lethargic, palpably on the wane. With one of four defeats in five starts, it seemed increasingly legitimate to wonder whether too much was now at stake to justify perseverance. But Paul Nicholls was indignant. The champion trainer had made his own professional breakthrough in tandem with a horse he will always adore beyond all others, and the idea that anyone might have a superior insight into the proper time to retire Kauto Star he considered not just impertinent, but downright offensive.
He had already received all due apologies, however, when Kauto Star rolled back the years at Haydock last month. He forced a ring-rusty Long Run into errors that day, but even Walsh suspected that the tables would be turned this time. "We were ready at Haydock, and caught him on the hop," he admitted afterwards. "I thought he would be hard to beat today. But I said to Paddy Brennan [Nacarat's rider] down at the start: 'I don't know what's going to happen here, but I do know that this feels a million dollars.'"
And where his every step had seemed laced with valediction, last season, yesterday Kauto Star jumped and travelled like a champion in his pomp. Turning in, it seemed obvious he would not be reeled in. Having flattered briefly three out, Somersby was dropping away; Captain Chris, in contrast, was regrouping far too cumbersomely after getting outpaced. Instead it was Long Run, who had seemed to reiterate the new pecking order in the Cheltenham Gold Cup in March, who contrived the only meaningful pursuit in the straight. Already off the bridle four out, he responded pluckily to Sam Waley-Cohen and reduced the gap to just over a length at the line – and it might have been less still, had he been more fluent over the last. It was fully 17 lengths back to Captain Chris, who just held Somersby for third.
Nicky Henderson, Long Run's trainer, was quick to seek out Nicholls and offer his congratulations. In the pandemonium, Nicholls barely seemed to register his friend and rival, but both will already know – to the sport's immense advantage – that the story is not yet fully told.
"If he gets to Cheltenham in that form, he'll be the one to beat," Nicholls declared. But Betfred, the Gold Cup sponsors, took a different view in retaining Long Run as 5-2 favourite, albeit they cut Kauto Star to 4-1 from 10-1. Grands Crus, who had confirmed himself a rising force earlier on the card, is third favourite at 10-1, though he may be kept to novice company at the Festival.
"I don't know why, but Kauto wasn't quite right last year," Nicholls said. "I knew we had him in serious order today. It's just unbelievable – he's awesome. I said to Clive that unless everything was right I would retire him, but he was just so well that I told him we had to keep going. I promise you that the slightest sign he is losing his enthusiasm and we will call it a day. Although he is 11, he has been acting like an eight-year-old at home. I will never have another like him."
"The score is two-all, and the decider will be played out in the Cotswolds," Henderson said. "We have improved seven lengths from Haydock, and need to find another one or two, and have three months to do that. Sam said that if he had really winged the last, it could have been close. The hill is going to help us at Cheltenham."
Walsh paid incredulous tribute to Nicholls and his team at Ditcheat. "He's lasted so long, that's what sets him apart," he said. "Arkle didn't last the same, nor did Mill House, nor did any of those horses. You can say what you want about the best steeplechasers of all time, but he has outlasted them all. It's a fairy tale."
Christmas star: Kauto's King George record
26.12.11: The winner by a length and a quarter from Long Run yesterday.
15.1.11 (race postponed from Boxing Day) Third, beaten 19 lengths by Long Run.
26.12.09: Winner by 36 lengths from Madison Du Berlais.
26.12.08 Winner by eight lengths from Albertas Run.
26.12.07: Winner by 11 lengths from Our Vic.
26.12.06: Winner by eight lengths from Exotic Dancer.
Other notable wins:
Cheltenham Gold Cup 2007, 2009
Betfair Chase, Haydock 2006, 2007, 2009, 2011
Tingle Creek Chase, Sandown 2005, 2006
Foaled March 19, 2000, in France.
40 starts, 23 wins, 3 falls
Career earnings £2,375,000
Long Run, the only horse to beat him in the King George, was not even born when Kauto Star won his first race in Britain at Newbury in 2004.
Chris McGrath's Nap: Hollow Tree (2.45 Chepstow)
The manner of his sole reverse since switching to hurdles, rallying well after being outpaced, suggests that the test of stamina today will play to his strengths.
Next best: Galaxy Rock (2.10 Chepstow)
One of few in the field still on the upgrade, having taken form to a new level last time, and likely to be suited by extreme demands of this race.
One to watch: Vulcanite (Charlie Longsdon) made a promising start to his hurdling career at Kempton yesterday, jumping and travelling well, and seen off only by a useful one in the straight.
Where The Money's Going: Giles Cross is 6-1 from 7-1 with the sponsors for the Coral Welsh National at Chepstow today.