Star quality: Kauto Star

He was the all-conquering king of National Hunt racing, but he was badly beaten in last year's Gold Cup. However, Kauto Star returns to Cheltenham this week resurgent and ready to make history by regaining his crown. Chris McGrath reports

It is one of the last acres on the Turf uncultivated by precedent. In its long history, no horse has ever regained the Cheltenham Gold Cup. That is why the odds computed by historians are so much bigger than those being offered by bookmakers as Kauto Star and Ruby Walsh, runaway winners in 2007, return as hot favourites to retrieve the trophy they surrendered to Denman and Sam Thomas last year.

That was a classic, gladiatorial showdown. Kauto Star and Denman are housed in adjacent stables by the champion trainer, Paul Nicholls, but had the least neighbourly of contests. Denman set a pitiless gallop, and both horses were so legless in the end that another trained by Nicholls, Neptune Collonges, failed only narrowly to get between them.

Nicholls is bringing all three back on Friday, and as the first three in the betting. But expectations, this time round, are rather different. When Denman resumed training last summer, a pulmonary disorder was discovered. When he finally resurfaced, at Kempton last month, he was not just beaten for the first time over fences, but given a heartless thrashing. Kauto Star, in contrast, has so renewed himself that he was last seen, likewise at Kempton, winning his third consecutive King George VI Chase.

Ted Walsh, Ruby's father and one of the most acute horsemen in these islands, suggests one obvious conclusion. "Before the race last year, I said that one of them would break the other," he remembered. "By winning, I thought Denman must have broken Kauto Star. But it could turn out that beating Kauto Star has broken Denman."

Harry Findlay, the professional gambler who co-owns Denman, has no doubt that beating Kauto Star was a pernicious enterprise. "When Denman turned for home, he was already gone," he said. "When he jumped the last, he was completely gone. I don't think we'll see the real Denman again."

But the saga has left its scars on some of those around Kauto Star, too. His resilience has been matched by a corresponding fidelity in his trainer, to the obvious cost of one of his jockeys – and, arguably, to Nicholls himself.

After the race last year, Nicholls bustled round the winner's enclosure, seeing three sets of owners. Then there were other distractions, presentations, the press, runners later on the card. It was only the next morning, back in the Mendips, that he sat down and played the video. And did he swell with pride? Did he marvel at his remorseless new champion? No. Instead the screen became blurred as he grieved for Kauto Star.

Nicholls has always been emotionally vulnerable through this horse. During Kauto Star's emergence, he would be infuriated by perfectly legitimate concerns about jumping errors. After the 2007 Gold Cup victory, Nicholls' very first words were addressed to the horse's "knockers". It was pretty graceless, and it remained a similar story after his last race, fresh questions having been prompted by his previous start. Though he had won easily on his reappearance, Kauto Star was struggling against inferior horses at Haydock when unseating Thomas over the last. Nicholls left no doubt that he held the jockey, standing in for the injured Walsh, at least partly to blame.

If Kauto Star has sometimes made Nicholls seem too defensive, the horse's owner, Clive Smith, suspects he knows why. "From little things he has said, I think Paul views this horse as the one that made sure he became champion trainer," he said. "Obviously, it meant everything to him. I could see myself how desperate he had been to win the title, during the two seasons before he first did it. But then he's such a lovely horse anyway, a big softie. I remember a photocall at the yard when he put his head on my shoulder, as if he were going to sleep. Paul is very attached to him. In fact, I can see problems, when it comes to the day we have to retire him, establishing who owns the horse."

Once Thomas blew Haydock, then he must have known that he might struggle to retrieve the guvnor's confidence. His own suffered, and Nicholls did not spare him, instead booking Tony McCoy to ride Smith's other superstar, Master Minded, in his comeback race. Once Walsh recovered, and won the King George on Kauto Star, speculation began to simmer that Thomas would not be given the chance to win a second Gold Cup on Denman. Only when the horse ran so feebly on his return did the heat go out of that situation.

A former jockey himself, Nicholls felt people were too precious about his criticisms. If a striker is missing goals, he reasoned, there is no sanctimonious wringing of hands when he is dropped. "Last season was like a dream for Sam," he said. "But within three weeks of winning the Gold Cup, he went to Fakenham and pulled up a circuit too soon. And from then on, it hasn't gone to plan.

"He's not under any contract with us. Nor is Ruby. At the end of the day, owners have their opinions and I have to deal with that. The great thing about Ruby, or McCoy, is that they've been through it all before and can cope. Sam's a young man, and it's been a learning curve. It's hard to be chucked on these good horses and suddenly be expected to make the right decision.

"If I say perhaps we should have won, then people say: 'Oh, listen to him, he's a bad sport.' But it's so competitive nowadays that fine margins make all the difference. I actually said it wasn't my finest hour, running Kauto Star at Haydock that day, and it wasn't Sam's either. We both got it wrong. We all make mistakes, and we're all there to be criticised. But it does seem that you get shot if you criticise a jockey."

In the wake of two defeats last spring, at Cheltenham and then Aintree soon afterwards, Kauto Star's toils at Haydock did seem to hint that the petrol might be running dry.

To Smith, however, these defeats instead provided the key to a new understanding of his champion. "I always thought there would be reasons for his run at Cheltenham," he said. "With hindsight, running him at Ascot the previous month didn't do him any good. After Haydock, I think we've now worked out that three to four weeks between races is not enough. And after two seasons of six races, he has had a much lighter campaign this time."

"You can't stop learning about them," Nicholls agreed. "We now think he's better going there off a big gap, and loads of work. He's fresh, in as good a form as he's ever been."

Even so, the question persists whether they made this discovery in time. Every horse has a finite limit to his peak performances, and it is conceivable that only the different demands made by Kempton – a track that suits him ideally – have allowed Kauto Star to prolong his pomp.

Best Mate, of course, won three consecutive Gold Cups for Henrietta Knight, but his appearances in between were notoriously about as frequent as Shergar's. "And we were much criticised for that," Knight remembered. "But he wouldn't have stood much racing and we knew our goal every year. Paul has given Kauto Star a good break this time, and he'll probably come back nice and fresh. But it's very difficult to get a horse round each year. It's a very tough race, much tougher than people realise, and leaves a big mark on a horse. The thing is that it's not just a staying race. There's no let-up. And you get a horse to a pretty high mental state when you're training for a specific race – they're almost at popping point. How many times they get brought down, and can be taken up again, must be questionable."

One man sufficiently involved to merit anonymity has a hunch that Kauto Star, rather than relying on anyone else, might even have been limiting his exertions himself. "He's been given some tally-ho over time," this observer remarked. "I can't think he can have been giving his all in all those races. Not that he's at all ungenuine. It's just he must have been keeping something back, otherwise he couldn't have come good again."

Nicholls would doubtless be aghast at that suggestion. "There's something about Kauto that's just magical, and we're all very fond of him," he said. "He's got that enthusiasm. Not many horses have had the races he has had, and come back like that. I think the King George was one of his best performances. It would be great to see him win again."

And will he? As so often, Ted Walsh put it best. "It all depends which Kauto Star turns up," he said. "The one who ran there last year wouldn't win. Nor would the one beaten at Liverpool, or Haydock. But if the Kauto Star shows up who won three King Georges, or the Gold Cup a couple of years ago, he'll win. The only trouble is that you'd want to be Jesus to know which one will turn up on the day."

Smith needs neither seers nor historians. "I don't worry what the past might say," he said. "I think we have the most talented horse in the race. He won't let us down."

'Kaw-to Star' not 'Kay-to Star'

*AGE

Nine

*STARTED CAREER

In France, where he was known as "L'Extraterrestre".

*BOUGHT

By owner Clive Smith for €400,000. Smith says horse is called "Kaw-to Star" not "Kay-to Star".

*STRIKE RATE

Races 20; wins 11; 2nd four times; 3rd three times.

*PRIZE-MONEY

So far £1.51m.

*BIGGEST WIN

Confirmed himself as new superstar of National Hunt racing by lifting 2007 Gold Cup at 5-4 fav.

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