The irony will not have been lost on racing's rulers, as they met yesterday to consider a response to unprecedented corrosion off the track, that things have seldom looked more lustrous on it. Successive Saturdays have consolidated the impression that these are golden days for steeple-chasing in general, and for its dominant stable in particular. After Kauto Star and Denman, last weekend it was the turn of Twist Magic to fortify the stronghold of Paul Nicholls at Ditcheat in Somerset.
Alan King, the man nominated by Nicholls as his biggest threat in the long term, was in no doubt as he reflected on chastening reverses for his two Cheltenham Festival champions, Voy Por Ustedes behind Twist Magic at Sandown, and My Way De Solzen behind Kauto Star at Haydock.
"I don't think National Hunt racing has ever had it so good," he said. "I think we're privileged to be seeing horses like this, week after week. But there's no doubt in my mind which one still sets the standard."
Kauto Star is his lodestar, and he remains suitably respectful of the the task facing My Way De Solzen when they meet again in the Stan James King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day. At the same time, he is confident that his horse will make a better fist of things than at Haydock last month, when a distant fifth of six finishers.
"I was slightly disappointed with the horse, but much more disappointed with myself," King said. "I thought we'd done enough with him, and maybe we had for a normal race. But it wasn't enough at that level. Against horses like Kauto Star and Exotic Dancer, race-fit, he got found out. But at least he travelled and jumped beautifully until he got to the third last, when his legs turned to jelly. Luckily 'Choc' [Robert Thornton, his stable jockey] looked after him, and I hope you'll see a different horse at Kempton. In fairness, he's been beaten first time out for the last three seasons. He's a gross horse, but does everything so easily that we haven't got a lot at home that can make him go."
King conceded the possibility that My Way De Solzen, winner of the Arkle Trophy over two miles as a novice, might not see out three and a quarter in the Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup. Three miles round a sharp, flat track like Kempton is a different matter, however, and there will be no decisions on his future programme until after the King George.
It might be awkward for Thornton if My Way De Solzen ended up returning to two miles for the Queen Mother Champion Chase, the defence of which remains top of the agenda for Voy Por Ustedes. Given spring ground at Cheltenham in March, King hopes that Voy Por Ustedes can reverse form with Twist Magic, but admits that the testing conditions at Sandown were by no means essential to that horse, either.
"I had a drink with Paul after the race, and he told me that Ruby Walsh never gets off a faller saying he would have won," he said. "But apparently he will go to his grave believing that Twist Magic would have beaten My Way De Solzen in the Arkle, had he not fallen at the second last."
At least Nicholls was able to comfort him that he would not run Twist Magic in the Stan James Desert Orchid Chase on the second day of the King George meeting, again the target for Voy Por Ustedes.
Not that everything is a bed of roses on the racecourse. There was a horrible tableau at Wolverhampton yesterday when Thyolo collapsed after leaving the stalls in the opener and Laura Gray was taken off the track on a stretcher. The other riders were flagged to pull up before completing their first circuit, with the gelding prostrate on the course. Gray was conscious but was taken to hospital. The race was declared void by the course stewards.
A higher panel of officials was meanwhile conducting its autopsy on the stillborn prosecution of Kieren Fallon, one of six men discharged from the Old Bailey last Friday when the judge decided they had no case to answer on allegations of race-fixing. The saga has accelerated in different directions since Fallon's lawyers are awaiting the French authorities' response to a positive drugs test, while much criticism has properly focused on the police and Crown Prosecution Service. But the board of the British Horseracing Authority presumably had some uncomfortable questions for its head of security, Paul Scotney, over his role in the affair. Many now consider his position untenable, but the word last night was that his employers are not among them.
Stan James King George VI Chase (3 miles, Kempton, 26 December) sponsors' ante-post odds: 4-5 Kauto Star, 6-1 Exotic Dancer, 8-1 My Way De Solzen & Racing Demon, 11-1 Taranis, 12-1 Monet's Garden, 40-1 others