Seldom can so many people have been so glad to be quite so wrong. At the same time, it seems pretty safe to say that those of us who had perceived an incipient decline in the most accomplished steeplechaser of recent times will abstain from any new debate over Kauto Star's next move. After his astounding, heart-warming renaissance at Haydock on Saturday, much the best course is to acknowledge that Paul Nicholls can be relied upon to make the right call.
His emotional attachment to the champion who both accelerated and distilled his own arrival at the top has long made Nicholls especially sensitive to opinion about Kauto Star. Having been profoundly affronted by suggestions that retirement might be the most prudent option for a horse who had won only one of his last five starts, he was entitled to make his feelings plain after Kauto Star won his 15th Grade One race and broke the course record.
In this stunning moment of vindication, however, Nicholls might also find it in his heart to see that few could realistically entertain a scenario with so little precedent in the sport's communal experience. For Kauto Star's longevity is founded not just in his own freakish gifts, physical and mental, but also in the groundbreaking husbandry of his trainer. Nobody else, after all, had ever managed to prolong a jumper's career sufficiently to win Grade One prizes in six consecutive seasons. And now Nicholls and his indefatigable talisman have made it seven.
Kauto Star won his first race for Nicholls before Long Run was even born. Yet how the younger horse was made to pay in the Betfair Chase for the insolence of his unsparing territorial gains last season, at both Kempton and Cheltenham. Nicholls, in fairness, had recognised the question marks over Kauto Star to the extent of permitting him none of the margin for error habitually reserved for his comeback. And Nicky Henderson, in contrast, was again making a clear priority of Boxing Day and the Festival in March.
Long Run did very well to renew his pursuit, after being forced into another worrying series of errors by the sheer aggression of Kauto Star's jumping under Ruby Walsh, and bookmakers retain him as warm favourite for the William Hill King George VI Chase. Conceivably, Nicholls and Clive Smith, who had already had their Kempton options fortified by Master Minded's own return to form down at Ascot, may decide that Saturday worked so well that it would be worth sitting out that race in order to get Kauto Star equally fresh for Cheltenham. But this horse breaks so many rules that it seems pointless to set him new ones.
Even Nicholls was freshly amazed by him yesterday. "I'm astounded how well Kauto has come out of the race," he said. "He has eaten up this morning and is as bright as a button. Last season, for whatever reason, he was finishing tired. But yesterday he was like he was two years ago. You'd hardly know he'd had a race. He mystifies me. We've got five weeks [to Kempton] so we'll see. Certainly, on yesterday's run he's entitled to be back there again."
Nicholls intends to let the dust settle before agreeing a strategy with Smith, but Master Minded seems certain to be aimed at the King George regardless. "He'd needed the run at Aintree and there was a huge improvement,' Nicholls said. "He was back on a right-handed track – which he does favour – and was awesome again yesterday. I think there is still improvement to come, because I have said all along I want him at his best for Boxing Day."
With Denman also looking to roll back the years, in the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown, another exciting Christmas beckons for the Ditcheat team. The Dublin track's big holiday meeting is also the target for Last Instalment, who announced himself among Ireland's best young chasing prospects when coasting home on the bridle at Punchestown yesterday. With Cheltenham in mind, however, Philip Fenton cautioned that soft ground is important to Last Instalment.
Chris McGrath's Nap Qianshan Leader (3.10 Kempton)
Looked ready to resume last season's progress after failing to get home over a longer trip at Exeter last time, still well there when briefly losing his footing turning in, and looks back on a feasible mark.
Next best Blindspin (2.15 Ludlow)
Irish raider shaped well in a tougher grade on his return and had suggested himself capable of better, especially given this kind of sharp test, when falling in a clear lead on home soil back in the spring.
One to watch Sunnyhillboy (Jonjo O'Neill) laid foundations for a season unlikely to climax until the spring Festivals when keeping on from midfield under a conditional rider at Haydock.