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."

Sport
Australia vs New Zealand live
cricket Follow over-by-over coverage as rivals New Zealand and Australia face off
News
Zayn has become the first member to leave One Direction. 'I have to do what feels right in my heart,' he said
peopleWe wince at anguish of fans, but his 1D departure shows the perils of fame in the social media age
Life and Style
Researchers found that just 10 one-minute swill-and-spit sessions are enough to soften tooth enamel and make teeth vulnerable to erosion
health
News
i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
The Regent Street Cinema’s projection room in the 1920s
film
News
Leah Devine is only the ninth female to have made the Young Magician of the Year final since the contest began more than 50 years
peopleMeet the 16-year-old who has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year
News
Jonathan Anderson was born in Northern Ireland but now based between London, where he presents a line named JW Anderson
peopleBritish designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
News
Andy Davidhazy at the beginning (left) and end (right) of his hike
video
News
Taylor Swift is applying to trademark song lyrics from 1989
people
Voices
The popularity of TV shows such as The Liver Birds encouraged Liverpudlians to exaggerate their Scouse accent
voicesWe exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
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

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

How to make your own Easter egg

Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

Cricket World Cup 2015

Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing