Racing has endured some dodgy headlines of late, courtesy of contentious new rules about whipping, and may have to brace itself for more this week, courtesy of the latest round of investigation into alleged corruption. But the one element of the sport that can rise above any human grubbiness is the most important of all, the horse at the heart of it all.
And here yesterday, what a horse. Kauto Star, the ageing ex-champ, supposedly on the way out, defied his years and the miles in his legs to produce a performance that made the soul wing higher with every doubt-quelling, faith-affirming leap. None was more moved after the 11-year-old gelding's eight-length defeat of the reigning king Long Run in the Betfair Chase than his trainer Paul Nicholls.
The six-times champion has formed an unashamed emotional bond with the dual Gold Cup hero and was close to tears in the aftermath. "I love this horse," he said. "I wouldn't have run him if I hadn't believed he'd run well. All I wanted from today was for him to come back safe and I've had a bad week, worrying about all the things that could have gone wrong. But for him to go and do that, my main emotion isn't relief. It's pride."
What Kauto Star went and did, at the insulting odds of 6-1, was to put the finest field of staying chasers assembled so far this season to the sword. Ruby Walsh employed the classic tactics – "go off in front and keep improving your position" – and Kauto Star's jumping was flamboyant or catlike as required. Walsh wound up the pace on the second of the two circuits and his mount retained a remorseless rhythm. His rivals all had a go – Time For Rupert, Diamond Harry, Long Run himself, with his own jumping wobbling under the pressure, one by one – and were repulsed.
Two fences out, the faithful in the stands started to howl the old warrior home. "He was enjoying himself out in front and we'd gone a decent enough gallop," said Walsh. "Down the back we started to get them off the bridle, one by one. I could see heads poking forward, then they'd disappear. At the last, he came up for me like the top horse he is. And on the run-in he stuck his head down and went for the line as if he knew it was special too."
Special it was, and the crowd knew it. If Long Run had prevailed, there would have been cheers of respect. But Clive Smith's Kauto Star inspires adulation and he got it. Beforehand, his entry into the parade ring provoked bursts of applause; afterwards, it was a full-blooded from-the-heart ovation.
It was a record 15th Grade 1 success for Kauto Star, taking him past the tally he had shared with another true great, Istabraq. Nicholls said: "Last season he was making a bit of a noise with his breathing, and I think it was for that reason he wasn't getting home in his races. This time, he has been clear."
His next target will be a record fifth King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day, when he is scheduled to meet not only Long Run again, but also his own stablemate Master Minded, who came through his own make-or-break test in style at Ascot yesterday.