It takes a man of stature to admit to a mistake, especially one as public as Kauto Star's last-stride, whisker-wide defeat by Our Vic here yesterday, but then Paul Nicholls is bigger than most. The trainer's first action in the unsaddling enclosure was to walk over to the winner's trainer, David Pipe, to shake his hand but as he did so annoyance – though with himself, not the result – was writ loud in the set of his ample green-tweeded shoulders.
On his trainer's instructions, Kauto Star was deployed aggressively by Ruby Walsh throughout the three miles and a furlong of the Totesport Bowl, never worse than second as Our Vic bowled gaily along, and quite often dicing for the lead. Sent clear before the third last, he maintained his advantage, despite having to bank the penultimate obstacle, until mugged by his rallying rival on the line.
"My fault," said Nicholls. "I told Ruby to keep the horse handy, but I got it completely wrong by telling him to sail on when he would have been better off getting a lead for longer. As soon as Ruby pulled up and came back towards me I could tell by the look of him he was steaming with me and I was going to get a bollocking.
"He said to me that normally he'd have the balls to do what he felt was right, and that he should have hung on to him for longer, but that I'd been so positive he should be positive. He said he knew turning in that I'd got it wrong. But that's racing. And we get it right more often than we get it wrong."
In fairness, Kauto Star would have won, whatever the tactics, had he not made that unholy mess of the second-last. After running slightly flat down the back straight and failing to flow over a couple of obstacles, he was back on the bridle and drawing clear when he took off too early at the fateful fence and had to rely on his back legs to get through the birch to the other side.
He was still in front at the last but the stutter in his rhythm and the consequent drain on his resources going to the limits of his stamina handed the momentum back to Our Vic. "Ruby pinged the third-last and I thought that was it," said the winning rider, Timmy Murphy. "Then his mistake gave me something to aim at, and once my lad had something to chase, he's picked up again. It was nip and tuck and I caught him late enough and he didn't have time to respond." The winning margin was the new minimum of a nose.
Blinkers have revitalised Our Vic, who wore them for the first time when ended a sequence of runner-up spots in the Ryanair Chase at Cheltenham. David Johnson's colourbearer once had the dread Timeform squiggle – the mark of a horse whose enthusiasm for his job is questionable – by his name, but no more.
"Both horses gave their all," said Pipe. "And when our fellow eventually retires, we won't half miss him. He's a good horse and has been all his life."
Many had questioned Nicholls's wisdom in turning Kauto Star out again after his hard-gained runner-up spot in the Gold Cup, but that is one decision he does not regret. "He was fit and healthy and racing is what they are for, not standing in a field," he said, "and he only just didn't win, and that was my fault, not his. If he hadn't been in front he might not have lost concentration at that fence."
The day began with defeat for another icon, Inglis Drever, and more 'if onlies'. The nine-year-old, who achieved cult status with his unprecedented third World Hurdle at Cheltenham, could finish only third to Blazing Bailey, with Faasel intervening, in the opening Liverpool Hurdle.
"When I was saddling him I could see he was over the top," said his trainer, Howard Johnson. "We call him Popeye at home and his eyes were popping out even more than usual, and he was all of a froth. He got squeezed two out, and if he'd winged the last he might have been closer. But it's not really his track, and it wasn't his day."
Whether or not Inglis Drever has any others is in the balance. "He'll have his summer holiday, and then he'll tell us if he's ready for more," added Johnson. "But I can tell you now if he does get to Cheltenham again, that will be his last race."
Blazing Bailey, fourth in the World Hurdle, was another helped by concentration-aiding headgear as he galloped home strongly to win by six lengths under Choc Thornton. "He's not quick," said the winning trainer, Alan King, "but he's a proper stayer."
Fourth-placed Lough Derg, from the Pipe stable, is now six points behind Kauto Star in the race for the seasonal Order Of Merit and may turn out again tomorrow, when fifth place or better in the Aintree Hurdle would give him the title.
Nicholls had to settle for another runner-up spot when Triumph Hurdle winner Celestial Halo was put in his place by Nicky Henderson's charge Binocular in the battle for juvenile bragging rights. But the powerful Ditcheat yard struck with novice hurdler Elusive Dream, and the day's earnings made the champion trainer the first jumps man to breach the £3m barrier for a season.
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