Nicholls believes Star is still 'top of the tree' despite Denman challenge

Last season, Kauto Star would explore the narrow margin between steeplechasing triumph and disaster by cleaving the final fence so violently, and so reliably, that it began to seem a deliberate flourish. In those shuddering blunders, at Kempton last Christmas and Newbury in February, he seemed to be developing some kind of ironic signature, a gesture towards mortality. By the time he again brushed through the birch at Cheltenham in March, in fact, the blemish had become almost perfunctory.

Since then, touch wood, he seems to have dispensed with this theatrical habit. Few who have the means and temperament to grasp the short odds about him winning a second Stan James King George VI Chase on Boxing Day will fret over his jumping. This time, the abiding insecurities of the sport can instead be verified by his trainer.

It is consistent with his status nowadays, admittedly, that Paul Nicholls should have gone from brief disaster to relentless triumph reversing the process that seemed to tempt his horse last winter. Indeed, the unmistakable theme of the racing Christmas is that the one horse with the insolence to threaten Kauto Star is stabled in the same Somerset yard. Denman is in turn odds-on to win the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown on Friday, and so intensify anticipation of their showdown at Cheltenham in March.

But the fact remains that strutting performances from both horses this autumn were chiefly treasured by Nicholls, not for their pomp, but for the succour they offered after the blackest day of his career. On 17 November, in a gross coincidence, Nicholls lost two of his most promising young horses in barely an hour at Cheltenham. For a few seconds, he had also been filled with dread over the fate of his peerless stable jockey, Ruby Walsh, who might have been pulped in the first of these falls. Relief came only when Nicholls was called by his assistant, Dan Skelton.

"It was an absolutely horrific fall," the champion trainer recalls. "But luckily Dan got to him nearly straightaway, and was able to tell me that Ruby would be all right. He could move, that was the thing. He couldn't breathe, because he was winded, but he could move."

Walsh had dislocated a shoulder, but made a timely comeback at Thurles yesterday, where he emerged unscathed from two rides for lesser men hardly an adequate preparation for a King George.

In his absence, of course, Sam Thomas has gorged himself on big prizes with Kauto Star, Denman, Mr Pointment and Twist Magic. But the young man who initially replaced Walsh on that grim Cheltenham day, Liam Heard, had the misfortune of getting to his feet beside the stricken Granit Jack.

"It was an incredibly bad day," Nicholls said. "And despite everything that has happened since it's still Granit Jack I've been thinking of on the way home. But that night, you just had to go back and be positive, try and pick everyone up again. You have no choice. The owners were emotional, terribly upset. But the person I had to look after was Liam. It was a potentially career-making moment for him, and he had given the horse an exemplary ride. And Jess, who looked after Granit Jack. It was dreadful for them. But it was nobody's fault. It was hard. It was hard for the whole team. But it's down to you to lead from the front. It's your job to get everyone looking forward again."

And as things turned out, the consolations could hardly have been richer. Aptly, morale was restored by Kauto Star, whose reappearance defeat at Aintree though perfectly excusable on paper had contained the first plausible intimations that he might already have passed his peak.

"If ever he was going to get beat, it was going to be that day at Aintree," Nicholls said. "My only concern was the way he seemed to race quite lazily mid-race. But I'm sure that had a lot to do with what we were trying to teach him last season. If you look at the Gold Cup, we dropped him in and crept there. Looking back, before Aintree I was working him with [the speedy] Twist Magic. Since then, we've put him with [the stayer] Mr Pointment and he looks a different horse. He's essentially a stayer, and from now on we'll be treating him that way."

Either way, Nicholls admits it was a relief to see the horse travel so fluently when winning at Haydock. Unarguably, not even Walsh has managed to get him jumping with more gusto than did the young man borrowing the Clive Smith silks.

"Obviously, I wouldn't have given Sam the chance if I didn't think he was up to it," Nicholls said. "Clive was talking about getting Mick Fitzgerald for Haydock, because he had won on the horse, but I said there was no point having a second jockey if we did not use him now. And he got on incredibly well with the horse. Have you ever seen him jump better? Yet Sam's still only 23, and four years ago at this time would have been riding at some open point-to-point in Cambridgeshire."

Nicholls has long been relaxed about Kauto Star's jumping, if not about those commentators who quibble with it. "He has always jumped well at home, and it's just been frustrating, those silly mistakes," he said. "I think it was just because he prefers going left-handed, was lugging that way a bit. He doesn't ever look like falling. He has loads of scope. Cheltenham was probably the best he had ever jumped. I don't think it's an issue any more."

Thomas's coming of age has also taken the pressure off when Walsh must choose between mounts in a big race. As things stand, Nicholls seems unequivocal over the jockey's looming Cheltenham dilemma. "To me, Kauto is still at the top of the tree, and Denman has still got to step up," Nicholls said. "What they do at home wouldn't tell you anything. They're totally different horses: Denman would take that much more work than Kauto Star, who's very clean-winded. It's what they do on the track that matters.

"And Denman still has a fair way to go. At the end of the day, he won the Hennessy off [a handicap mark of] 161. How far would Kauto Star have won off 161? You've got to keep things in perspective."

Even so, Nicholls feels that Denman has "improved and tightened up" for his reappearance. That ominous bulletin serves to emphasise the air of invincibility that has imbued his yard since that harrowing day, barely a month ago. "I worry that some people will now think everything's easy," he said. "But we all know what racing's like. The ups and downs are incredible. Granit Jack was such a talented horse. Maybe the last few weeks have put things right again. But you couldn't get a better example of how the highs and lows follow each other in this game, and always will."

News
people
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film Ridley Scott reveals truth behind casting decisions of Exodus
News
people
Sport
footballArsenal 2 Borussia Dortmund 0: And they can still top the group
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
An unseen image of Kurt Cobain at home featured in the film 'Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck'
filmThe singers widow and former bandmates have approved project
News
Andy Murray with his girlfriend of nine years, Kim Sears who he has got engaged to
peopleWimbledon champion announces engagement to girlfriend Kim Sears
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tv
News
Albert Camus (left) and Jean-Paul Sartre fell out in 1952 and did not speak again before Camus’s death
people
Arts and Entertainment
Roisin, James and Sanjay in the boardroom
tvReview: This week's failing project manager had to go
News
Ed Miliband visiting the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem. The Labour leader has spoken more openly of his heritage recently
newsAttacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But are the barbs more sinister?
Arts and Entertainment
'Felfie' (2014) by Alison Jackson
photographyNew exhibition shows how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
Life and Style
fashion
News
i100
Life and Style
Fright night: the board game dates back to at least 1890
life
Environment
The vaquita is being killed by fishermen trying to catch the totoaba fish, which is prized in China
environmentJust 97 of the 'world's cutest' sea mammals remain
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Argyll Scott International: Senior Business Analyst- Insurance

Negotiable: Argyll Scott International: Senior Business Analyst - Insurance ...

Recruitment Genius: Property Manager

£25000 - £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This independent, growing Sales...

Recruitment Genius: Graphic Designer

£16000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Multi-skilled graphic designer ...

Austen Lloyd: Court of Protection Solicitor

£30000 - £50000 per annum + EXCELLENT: Austen Lloyd: Court of Protection Solic...

Day In a Page

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

Staying connected: The King's School

The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

When two worlds collide

Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

Putin’s far-right ambition

Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

Escape to Moominland

What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?