This time, Kauto Star will be at Kempton on Boxing Day only to lead the parade. In other respects, however, steeplechasing's midwinter championship will remain so little changed that they might have a job preventing him jumping off with the others. His old rival, Long Run, is favourite in his absence – and yesterday continuity was further assured when William Hill announced a three-year extension to its sponsorship of the King George VI Chase.
Long Run's breakthrough King George and Gold Cup wins in 2010-11 had appeared to seal a succession, but Kauto Star memorably avenged himself with a record fifth success at Kempton last year. Now that he has finally been pensioned off, moreover, something of his vintage quality will attach to Long Run himself. If it seems premature to identify a horse not yet eight years old as some bastion of the old guard, the fact remains that Long Run was a very early starter – and even a contemporary like Al Ferof, as a graduate from the novice ranks, seems relatively fresh blood.
But it is precisely because Long Run has already achieved so much that his owner can perceive a somewhat cyclical quality in his profile. "It's possible that the Gold Cup he won as a six-year-old might have taken a hell of a lot out of him," Robert Waley-Cohen said yesterday. "Of course, it's also possible that Kauto Star was just a very good horse, when we ran against him last year. But I just suspect that those races came home to roost in the Gold Cup, when he definitely wasn't himself."
The jury remains out on Long Run's restoration, following defeat by Silviniaco Conti at Haydock last month, but he has a habit of needing his comeback and saw things out pretty well after proving too fresh in the early stages. Certainly, Waley-Cohen reckons it a better performance than he produced in the same race last year, when blown apart by Kauto Star's rejuvenation. "I thought he ran much better this time," Waley-Cohen said. "The race was not run to suit him at all and he would have found that ground a bit tricky as well. We were always worried there wouldn't be enough pace, and that's exactly what happened – but we didn't want to leave the rest of his season behind in a terrific battle there."
Interesting testimony in his support comes from Charlie Morlock, assistant trainer to Nicky Henderson. Having only just joined Seven Barrows last year, Morlock admits now to the bemusement he felt about Long Run. "I do remember wondering why everyone got so hyped up about him," he said. "He just didn't have that buzz you tend to get with good horses. But he seems a very different horse now, in terms of that buzz and vitality. It's an intangible thing, just the feel you get as a stockman looking him in the eye, but he certainly seems a healthier, happier individual."
At the same time Morlock counselled against neglecting Riverside Theatre, second to Long Run two years ago but this time making his reappearance. "If you look back he has always run his best races fresh," Morlock said. "So they've just taken a bold shout to go straight to Kempton with him. We took him down there last week for a gallop, just to take some of the fizz out of him, without flattening him – and he went very nicely indeed." His escorts were none other than Darlan and Grandouet, both top-class hurdlers.
The ghost of Christmas past will none the less continue to haunt proceedings. Paul Nicholls, his trainer, is back with two runners – the retired champion's half-brother Kauto Stone joins Al Ferof – while the big novice race on the card has now been renamed the Kauto Star Feltham Chase. "The hardest thing will be keeping a lid on his energy," Nicholls said. "For the first time in eight years he dropped Clifford [Baker, Nicholls' head lad] the other morning and trotted down the road loose. He still thinks he's six."
William Hill King George VI Chase, Kempton, Boxing Day (sponsors' betting): 4-1 Long Run, 13-2 Al Ferof, 7-1 Cue Card, 8-1 Riverside Theatre, Sizing Europe, 10-1 bar.
Chris McGrath's Nap: Stetson (3.30 Lingfield)
Returned from a long absence to make an auspicious start in handicaps for his new stable.
Next Best: On The Feather (12.00 Lingfield)
In decent form over hurdles and returns to the Flat on a fair mark.