There may well have been better winners of this race, but few can have been better horses. Watching Kauto Star win the Stan James King George VI Chase for a second time here yesterday was like meeting the ghost of Christmas present. In years to come, it is already quite plain, those who observe this most bracing of Boxing Day rituals will include Kauto Star among the names against which they measure future champions. Yet it is equally obvious, here and now, that he is even better than he will ever show round Kempton.
The man who is directing his career with such assurance, Paul Nicholls, had admitted beforehand that Kauto Star will never take to this place. He attributes those howling blunders in the race last year to the horse's instinct to stray left, and believes that the sharp, right-handed bends here will always interrupt his natural rhythm. Sure enough, the only feasible threat to Kauto Star as he surged towards the three fences in the home straight yesterday was this same, inveterate tendency to drift away to his left. He lost several lengths swaying across these final fences, but at least Ruby Walsh knows what to expect nowadays and there was never a moment when the horse invited doubt.
Overall Kauto Star jumped with the elan that had underwritten his performance at Haydock last month. Even Nicholls had been alarmed by his unprecedented sloth when beaten on his reappearance at Aintree, but the result is that he has got to know the horse better. Last winter, Kauto Star was the fast horse who had to prove his endurance. Now he is trained and ridden for stamina.
That is why Nicholls told Walsh to ride him with such freedom that he was able to take up the running fully half a mile out. Walsh, betraying no rustiness after five weeks recuperating from that ghastly fall at Cheltenham in November, had restrained the 4-6 favourite early but soon allowed the sails to billow.
"I told Ruby not to be afraid of being positive," Nicholls said. "Use your jumping, I said. All I know is that this horse has staying power. Never mind about being in front. When mine get to the front, they keep galloping."
If he seemed to swell with pride, why not? After all, this is the trainer who also supervises the only credible threat to Kauto Star: Denman, who faces his big test tomorrow in the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown. "And to be honest I've been more nervous about Friday than about coming here," Nicholls said. "I was confident we had the best horse today, and you know when your horse is right. Denman is still stepping up the ladder. Judged on what we have seen today, he is going to have to keep doing that. To me, that was as good a performance as Kauto Star has produced. Hopefully, the whole jumping issue is a thing of the past now. The horse has got a lot more confidence, and Ruby now knows that he can boot him into a fence and not worry."
Walsh avowed that he would have won "twice as far", going left-handed round Cheltenham. "It was all over at the fourth last," he said. "I had them stone cold."
Kauto Star was 11 lengths clear as Walsh eased him to a walk, a comic foil to the desperate three-way battle for second. This was won by Our Vic, again excelling on his reappearance, albeit again showing eccentricity by losing his place before staying on again. Exotic Dancer just denied Racing Demon for third, but My Way De Solzen ran deplorably, pulled up before the 13th, showing even less than at Haydock. Things were bleaker still for the winner's stablemate, Taranis, who broke down with an injury that is understood to threaten his career but not, thankfully, his life.
Exotic Dancer comes from a stable going through a quiet run and will doubtless get closer to the winner in future as he has, repeatedly, in the past having seemed ill-suited by the change in tactics that saw him hit the front as early as the 11th of the 18 fences.
Tony McCoy has ridden hundreds of winners that way, of course, but there is no doubting his versatility these days and even the typically assertive ride that won the Stan James Christmas Hurdle for Straw Bear contained subtle dimensions. Artfully restraining his mount after leading three out, he waited for Paul Carberry to join him on the favourite, Harchibald, before pulling out extra on the run-in and nosing back in front at the post.
Nick Gifford, Straw Bear's trainer, saluted McCoy as "brilliant" but gave enough credit to the horse to hope that his owner, JP McManus, would postpone his chasing career in favour of another crack at the Smurfit Champion Hurdle. "We decided the only way to beat Harchibald would be to get him into a scrap," Gifford said. "But they're two very, very good horses and it was a wonderful race." Harchibald did not travel quite as luxuriantly as is often the case on this dead ground and the race sponsors left him at 13-2 for Cheltenham, while halving Straw Bear's odds to 10-1.
The other Grade One race on the card, the Nigel Clark Feltham Chase, produced a cracking battle, Joe Lively thwarting Here's Johnny after both made blunders under pressure. Coral cut the winner to 10-1 from 16-1 for the Royal & SunAlliance Chase, but Blue Square left him on 14-1. Neither horse, in truth, seems likely to give another West Country chaser too much to worry about next Christmas.