Those who prefer to view their favourites as constants in the firmament rather than brilliant meteors have not long to wait. Steeplechasing's stars will soon be out, none more eagerly awaited than those from the most powerful stable in the land, that of Paul Nicholls. But though the reigning Gold Cup champion Kauto Star is about to start entertaining the faithful in this country for a sixth season, his latest campaign – just three bright points – will be no longer than Orion's Belt.
The nine-year-old has pencilled in either the Jnwine.com Champion Chase at Down Royal a month tomorrow, or the Betfair Chase two weeks later but not, as last year, both. He will then try on Boxing Day to become the first horse to win four consecutive King George VI Chases (something even that consummate Kempton specialist Desert Orchid could not do) and after that will not emerge from Manor Farm in anger until the Gold Cup in March.
Kauto Star's limited programme is in deference not so much to his advancing years but his attitude to his job; he puts a lot into each race, even when winning apparently easily, and needs time to recover physically and mentally. "I think," said Nicholls yesterday of Clive Smith's bright bay gelding, "that he is as good as ever. He's been doing everything right since he came back into training and, given that last season's Gold Cup was his best-ever performance, he is certainly the one they have to beat."
The other Gold Cup winner under Nicholls' care, Denman, will also tread familiar territory this term. His first target will be a second Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury late next month, preceded by a racecourse workout at Exeter on 10 November to blow away the cobwebs. His trainer reports he, too, is in good heart, in his case a most pertinent observation.
Twelve months ago the burly liver chestnut was recovering from cardiac irregularities, a problem that came to light after he trounced Kauto Star in the Gold Cup. "His heart was tested before he started work again this time, and is 100 per cent normal," said Nicholls, "and he looks amazing compared with this time last year."
The Gold Cup score between the stablemates is one-all and at this early stage they are the first two favourites, with Kauto Star as short as 6-4. But though Nicholls has lost the third of his proven Cheltenham musketeers, Neptune Collonges, to injury, he proffered a pair of newcomers to the mix, the six-year-olds Tricky Trickster and What A Friend.
Tricky Trickster is one of the newest Manor Farm recruits, a £320,000 auction purchase, with the Grand National his prime target, after he took the National Hunt Chase at the Festival for Nigel Twiston-Davies. "We'll keep him over hurdles until the National weights come out, then he'll have one race over fences in the spring," said Nicholls. "It could be the Gold Cup, which I think is a good Aintree prep."
What A Friend (who carries the colours of Sir Alex Ferguson) will start his season in the Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby later this month and may then act as back-up to Denman in the Hennessy.
To visit Nicholls' Somerset yard is to be presented with a who's who of current chasing and hurdling, with equally positive bulletins issued on two more reigning champions and one who very nearly was. One of the trainer's challenges has been the management of the imposing two-mile king Master Minded, a horse whose lactic acid balance is precarious. "He's not the easiest," admitted Nicholls. "His muscles tie up easily, so he has to work every day. He went through a growing phase last year and is stronger now than he was, though. He is amazing; he's only six but has won two Champion Chases."
In March, Master Minded will try to emulate Badsworth Boy's hat-trick of two-mile Festival titles, with five races on his agenda, starting at Cheltenham next month. The World Hurdle winner Big Bucks will launch the defence of his staying title at Newbury and the first elite target for Celestial Halo, inches runner-up in the Champion Hurdle, will be the Boylesports Hurdle in December over the course where he was so narrowly denied in March.
Turf account: Sue Montgomery
Lemon N Sugar (4.05 Lingfield) The Upwardly-mobile sprinter who is now 13lb higher than when she won over today's track in May, but runs off the same mark as her creditable fourth at Ascot in July, when she was not only poorly drawn but also the chief victim of a false start.
ColePeper (2.10 York) Off the mark in only an ordinary maiden, but this imposing son of Cape Cross was value for more than his five-length win and looks capable of defying top-weight on his nursery debut.
One to watch
Deacon Blues (J Fanshawe) had a more than satisfactory introduction to his job at Nottingham on Tuesday, staying on readily from the back in the closing stages.
Where the money's going
Class Is Class is the 5-1 favourite with sponsors Ladbrokes for the weekend's richest domestic prize, a 19-runner £75,000 12-furlong handicap at Ascot.
Chris McGrath's Nap
Native City (4.50 Carlisle).Reuse content