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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."