Racing: Kauto Star's pursuit of the Dessie glory trail offers compelling test of Nicholls' judgement

While there will always be those who salute new champions too gullibly, it does seem nowadays as though many more are too suspicious instead. Increasingly, analysis of one horse galloping faster than another is marbled with sophistry and mistrust. How very wholesome, then, to see the best steeplechaser in Britain campaigned with such blunt faith.

Everyone was startled when Kauto Star surfaced in the William Hill Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown today. Paul Nicholls had responded to that stunning debut over three miles at Haydock last month by saying that his next target would be the Stan James King George VI Chase, over the same distance, at Kempton on Boxing Day. Yet here he is, back over two miles, back in the race he won so well last year.

After Haydock, even Nicholls reproached himself that he had mistaken a Gold Cup horse for a two-miler. And perhaps Kauto Star would not be running but for the fact that Desert Orchid died just six days before Haydock. Nicholls watched footage of the metronomic grey, bounding gaily over his fences, utterly immune to distance. Though Desert Orchid won an Irish National over the best part of four miles, he included the 1988 Tingle Creek among his wins over two.

No doubt those who feared that Kauto Star would not stay at Haydock will now be wondering if he will find things happening too quickly today. But the small field and soft ground should ensure that he will find due rhythm over that staccato sequence of fences in the back straight. True, he is opposed by a couple of brash jumpers in Voy Por Ustedes, who exhausted a vintage field of novices at Cheltenham last spring, and Central House. But Kauto Star's hallmark is his gusto on the bridle and, under one of the great riders, altogether a marvellous spectacle seems assured.

Perhaps his participation will prove more instructive of his trainer than the horse. Would Nicholls (right) have been quite so certain of his ground before finally wresting the trainers' championship from Martin Pipe last season? He has always had that breezy, confident demeanour, but is certainly settling comfortably on to the throne.

Nicholls feels that the short odds about Kauto Star amply vindicate the decision to run, but one clear reservation remains. For while the horse has won both races this season on the bridle, people seldom give due credit to the generosity that sustains such a performance. Top-class form requires top-class effort, and sometimes coming off the bridle can be like coming off a cliff. There is not always much lurking beneath.

Kauto Star is apparently so fresh that Nicholls would otherwise be giving him searching exercise at home. But even if a big effort in testing ground does not affect his chance at Kempton - and in that respect it certainly makes sense to revert to a shorter trip - nobody can be certain whether or not it might leave a legacy come the Festival in March.

If he goes on to win the King George, he will remain eligible for a £1m bonus from Betfair in the Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup - a far more brutish examination of stamina. And there have been times when Nicholls has failed to maintain a remarkable autumn strike rate into the big spring Festivals. He has been tearing along at a clip of one-in-three over the past two months. Whatever happens today, it may be worth remembering that Kauto Star will have one less bullet in his belt.

Clopf on Royal route to Cheltenham

Some people think that the best way to Cheltenham is the A40, but there is as much to be said for the R155 outside Dublin. For the three Grade One races at Fairyhouse tomorrow are always a reliable signpost to the Festival in March.

The Ballymore Properties Hatton's Grace Hurdle brings together Brave Inca and Asian Maze, who showed contrasting levels of rustiness when resuming behind Iktitaf at Punchestown the other day. Asian Maze kept the young upstart honest after he coasted past the pair of them, but Colm Murphy expects Brave Inca to make a much better fist of things this time.

Equally he has made it plain that his whole season will be built around his Smurfit Champion Hurdle defence, and this race was the scene of his sole defeat last winter. He has always raced as though two and a half miles should suit him, but in testing ground the trip may expose him as still well short of his peak.

Iktitaf himself won the Royal Bond Hurdle on this card last year, but was subsequently denied a first visit to Cheltenham by a setback. Even so this novice race has been a Festival goldmine, the previous six winners including Hardy Eustace, Moscow Flyer, Newmill and Like-A-Butterfly.

This time the horse with most pretension to meeting those standards is Clopf, who has won both starts over hurdles so far and jumped with conspicuous flair when thrashing a decent field at Navan last month.

Listener comeback speaks volumes

Racing tends to see things in just one dimension: first place. After all, that is where the bookmakers pay out. But you will seldom find anyone happier with second than Robert Alner after the John Smith's Future Stars Chase at Sandown yesterday.

The Listener was beaten a length by Star De Mohaison, but that horse had arrived fresh from a win over hurdles at Cheltenham last month and his rider seized a decisive initiative over the third last - site of The Listener's only hesitant jump.

The grey rallied up the hill, not given a hard time, and Alner was delighted by the appetite he had shown for these awkward fences, his promising novice season having been wrecked by two heavy falls.

The Listener will seek another small field over Christmas, possibly in the Lexus Chase in Ireland, though he has an alternative at Wetherby. It does seem a pity that he has not been given an entry in the Coral Welsh National. But Alner has already shown his dexterity with a Gold Cup horse, and Blue Square's offer of 40-1 against The Listener is tempting.

The same firm cut Star De Mohaison to 12-1 from 14-1, and in fairness he does have the runs on the board, having won the Royal & SunAlliance Chase at the Festival last season. He may even return to Cheltenham for a valuable handicap as early as this Friday.

Walsh to work the oracle with Nation

The big handicap hurdle at Sandown today was won last year by Verasi, trained by Gary Moore, while the two previous runnings were won by horses ridden by Ruby Walsh. This time the two combine with Nation State, who needed his reappearance and gets the cheekpieces he wore when third as a novice at the Cheltenham Festival.

Walsh can complete another productive Saturday in the last race, having coaxed a career best from Ladalko when riding him for only the second time last season in the Scottish National. The Irishman hurt his ankle in a fall yesterday, but is confident of riding Kauto Star today - much to his trainer's relief. "Ruby can't walk," Paul Nicholls said. "But he can ride." You can say that again. In fact, if they want him to walk, all they need do is lay down some water.