Within just over an hour on Saturday, three different crucial questions about the Cheltenham festival will be asked and answered. One Gold Cup winner, Kauto Star, is scheduled to run at Ascot. He will hardly have passed the post when another, Kicking King, continues his comeback at Gowran Park. And neither will be on the way home when the Champion Hurdle second favourite, Osana, steps out at Wincanton.
Kauto Star has also been entered in a chase at Wincanton as a precaution, in case there is not sufficient ease in the ground in Berkshire, but the Grade One Ascot Chase is the first priority as his final warm-up before the defence of his crown. And, incongruous though it may seem in mid-February, the track authorities, faced with a dry weather forecast for the rest of the week, are preparing to water.
Chief among those likely to take Kauto Star on is Monet's Garden, the last horse to beat him – and indeed the only one to do so when he has completed in more than two years – when he prevailed by a length and a half at Aintree in October in receipt of a stone.
The dashing grey's trainer Nicky Richards is relishing the rematch, though is realistic rather than bullish about his charge's prospects of maintaining superiority at level weights. "Clashes between horses like these are what racing is all about," he said last night. "Monet's Garden is a very good horse in his own right, but Kauto Star is a tremendous one, and I take my hat off to him."
Richards' team have been in low-key form of late, but the Cumbrian handler was unconcerned. "We've had nearly three months of bad weather," he said, "wet and cold. January is always a quiet time at Greystoke; my father used to take it off and go on holiday. But Monet's Garden is in fine form. He'll work tomorrow and school on Wednesday."
Kicking King, who made such a tremendous return to action after two years off when second to Nickname over an inadequate two miles at Gowran last month, returns to the Co Kilkenny track for the longer Red Mills Chase. "Everything is good with the horse," said trainer Tom taaffee yesterday. "He'll work in the morning and once that goes well, we'll be all set for Saturday."
Though the reigning chasing monarch will delight his fans once more before Cheltenham – as well as the extra Saturday entry in the Country Gentleman's Chase at Wincanton, trainer Paul Nicholls has the option of the Racing Post Chase at Kempton a week later – the defending hurdles champion Sublimity will not compete again before the big one four weeks tomorrow.
The eight-year-old has raced only once since his sparkling defeat of Brave Inca and Afsoun last March, when he was fourth to Osana at Cheltenham in December.
"As far as another run goes, anything we could come up with would be closer to Cheltenham than ideal," said Co Kildare-based trainer John Carr yesterday. "So he'll be going straight there. The plan is to give him four awaydays before the Champion Hurdle – he was at the Old Vic [the all-weather strip at the Curragh] last week, for instance, and we're hoping to go to Dundalk next week.
"And we'll also get a racecourse gallop on grass in there somewhere." Carr admitted that the horse losing his place at the top of the market suited him. "It's all about Sizing Europe now," he said, "and that means the pressure is off me." After beating Osana at Cheltenham in November, the Henry de Bromhead-trained Sizing Europe's next and latest victim, in a Grade 1 at Leopardstown last month, was the former dual champion Hardy Eustace, who will be making his sixth successive visit to the Festival next month.
Trainer Dessie Hughes may yet let the evergreen 11-year-old take his chance in another Champion Hurdle, in which he was fourth last year. "He couldn't be better, he's in great form," he said. "Maybe he'll deteriorate after this year but he's still holding his own."
Sizing Europe, eight lengths in front at Leopardstown, is the stumbling block, with three-mile World Hurdle pencilled in. "We'll wait and see how Henry de Bromhead's horse is. If he does, we'd more than likely switch, but if he doesn't, we'd go back to the Champion where we know what he's done before. It's nice to have the two options."
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