Star shows no sign of waning on home front

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The Independent Online

The only precedent is his own. Two years ago, Kauto Star became the first horse ever to retrieve the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Today he must not only do it all over again, having taken a harrowing fall behind Imperial Commander in last year's race, but also win back those whose loss of faith has so vexed his trainer, Paul Nicholls.

At 11, Kauto Star would be the oldest winner in four decades. The same historic emphasis on youth looms over his old rival, contemporary and next-door neighbour, Denman. Both horses, however, retain enough loyalty to return among the favourites today – and those who supervise them insist that the case in their favour does not rest on mere sentiment.

Nicholls was infuriated by suggestions that Kauto Star should be retired after failing in his quest for an unprecedented fifth success in the King George VI Chase. Third to Long Run that day at Kempton in January, the horse bled from the nose on his return to Somerset and was put on a course of antibiotics. To Nicholls, it was one disappointing run – the sort of thing that should be indulged in any racehorse.

To others, however, it was the third consecutive hint that he is no longer in his prime. He was efficient, at best, in disposing of a questionable stayer on his reappearance at Down Royal; and was already beaten when taking that fall on his last visit here.

For an insight into Nicholls' devotion to the horse, and his consequent sensitivity to the presumption of others, it is worth seeking the testimony of his trusted assistant, Dan Skelton.

"I do think there was a bit of personal affront," Skelton admitted. "What annoyed Paul was that everybody suddenly knew the horse better than he did. One minute, everyone wanted to see Kauto as much as possible. There were badges and flags and all the rest of it. And then, after one substandard run, all of a sudden he should be retired. If he could actually regain the Gold Cup, that would be unbelievable, unthinkable probably. But it is possible.

"He's a racehorse, at the end of the day, and racing is what he does. He is treated like a king here, and loves all the attention. Horses like Kauto and Denman and Big Buck's, they love the big occasion, the atmosphere of the big day. They know. You only have to look at Kauto. He doesn't look like a horse who wants putting out in a field."

Kauto Star is ridden daily by Clifford Baker, the stable's head lad, who is adamant that there has not been the slightest detectable deterioration in the horse's work. "Paul has absolute confidence in the horse, in Clifford, and in his own ability as a trainer, to know when time's time," Skelton said. "Kauto still struts out of the yard every day like he's in charge. And he still has that rounded physique. The weight hasn't fallen off the top-line. Horses in decline do give you little signs, at home, and we haven't seen anything in either of them. After Kempton Paul said: 'Don't worry, we'll get it right.' And he will."

Skelton knew from an early stage that Kauto Star was not himself at Kempton. "But everything about him now is as we'd want it," he said. "His coat looks great, he's well muscled up, and he never misses a nut. See More Business went back to the Gold Cup as a previous winner, again and again, to finish third or fourth – and that still made him the third or fourth best in the country. For some horses, that's a lifetime achievement."