Kauto Star has a date with history at Kempton on Boxing Day. Whether anyone else will be keeping the same appointment, however, is by no means clear. Never mind the weather, which continues to menace the meeting. Last night it was proving difficult simply to find a rider for the champion steeplechaser.
Poor Noel Fehily, who had already been through the same process once, has now had to give up the most momentous opportunity of his career for good. He evidently remains troubled by a wrist injury. Paul Nicholls, trainer of Kauto Star, promptly offered Tony McCoy the chance to assist the horse's quest for an unprecedented fifth consecutive success in the William Hill King George VI Chase. But the 15-times champion jockey could not accept without first consulting connections of his intended mount, Albertas Run.
Known for his loyalty, McCoy will doubtless have found a telephone call to Jonjo O'Neill especially awkward. The trainer of Albertas Run was never likely to stand between the most prolific jump jockey in history, and the best steeplechaser of his era. But O'Neill also trains Don't Push It, whose Grand National success in April prompted another breakthrough for McCoy only on Sunday, when he proved the overwhelming choice of BBC viewers as Sports Personality of the Year. The jockey will give Nicholls an answer today.
It was something of a bolt from the blue from Fehily, who was thought to have fractured a wrist at Newbury last month, just days after being offered the mount on Kauto Star at Kempton. The horse's usual rider, Ruby Walsh, had himself been ruled out when breaking a leg at Down Royal last month. Fehily was then overjoyed when X-rays appeared to eliminate a break, and he returned to ride Master Minded, in the same Clive Smith silks as Kauto Star, to a big win at Cheltenham 12 days ago. Fehily wore protective strapping on the wrist, and all seemed well, albeit he had limited opportunities to assess his fitness during the freeze.
Yesterday, however, he told Nicholls that could not conscionably take the ride. The champion trainer revealed on his Betfair blog that "Noel has stood himself down, as he believes he needs surgery, and could be out for six to eight weeks."
Nobody, clearly, should be deceived that Kauto Star's record in the race is a matter of mechanical ease. No less than jockeys, horses are always prone to accident. Win, lose or draw, simply to make the same rendezvous five years running is itself something of a Christmas miracle. John Oxx, trainer of a recent Flat racing phenomenon in Sea The Stars, believed that it was sheer constitution that exalted him above the herd. Lesser animals could not absorb the same training schedule. In essence, "class" was a matter of physical capacity.
"The reason these horses get through to the top, and keep going, is that they stay sound," Nicholls reflected. "Obviously Kauto Star has huge ability, but there are a lot of horses that have ability and don't stay sound. He's been able to stick his racing. He did have a couple of injuries in his early days, and I think a bit of time off then didn't do him any harm. I'd say now that the little fracture of his hock, when he was five, was actually a blessing in disguise. It gave him loads of time to mature – and a lot of horses don't get that chance."
Nicholls acknowledges other factors, too. He increasingly tends to keep his best horses fresh, and intends only three races for Kauto Star this season. "Nowadays we work them harder at home," he said. "That way you don't waste runs when they're not fit. Because that's when you risk problems. If you can just mind them a bit, not overrace them, they'll last a little longer."
He was amply satisfied with Kauto Star's comeback at Down Royal, having wondered whether the horse's fall at Cheltenham in March might have left some kind of psychological legacy. "After such a hard fall, you never know what they're going to do when they get back on the track," he admitted. "But he left all that behind him, no problem. It was a hard place to be that day, Cheltenham. I felt sick. But the next thing you knew, Ruby was getting back on him, so I thought he couldn't be too bad. Falls like that, it must a fine line between being fatal and not. But it was a bit slippery, so he slid away from the fall, really. Even so, his neck was bloody sore for a week. We had to put his manger on three or four tyres, so he could get his head down to eat. But he has come back full of enthusiasm."
Kauto Star was efficient, rather than flamboyant, at Down Royal. But Nicholls is adamant he has yet to perceive even the faintest hint of decline. "I have to say Kauto Star looks as well now as he has ever looked," he said. "And he seems to be going as well as ever, too. Clifford Baker, who rides him every day, said last week that he has never felt better."
While everything seems to have gone like clockwork with Kauto Star, the uncertainties over his rider still extend to the racetrack itself. As a former jump jockey, Brian Clifford was certainly not complacent about a progressive thaw during the day. The clerk of the course said that the meeting remains only "50-50" to proceed as scheduled, but much of the snow lying on the frost blankets has disappeared despite only a modest improvement in temperatures. The going remains raceable underneath, but frosts of varying severity are still being predicted by the forecasters.
* Having already published a guilty verdict, the British Horseracing Authority yesterday fined Aidan O'Brien £10,400 over the Cape Blanco affair at York in May. He was also given an unequivocal warning that he had come very close to a period of suspension in Britain. The Ballydoyle trainer refused to allow official vets to have the horse trotted out a second time after he finished lame.Reuse content