Star top of the tree

King George win sets up dream Gold Cup showdown with Denman

In the judgement of many, he has now formally sealed his status as the best since Arkle. Marvellously, however, there still remain those prepared to question whether Kauto Star is even the best in his own stable. David Elsworth, for one, perseveres in the belief that Denman, famously housed in the very next stall, could yet beat him at Cheltenham in March; and so, too, does Harry Findlay, Denman's joint-owner. The one certainty is that you would want to be there, to see him try.

Neither Elsworth nor Findlay will be considered the most scrupulously impartial of judges. Elsworth, after all, supervised the career of Desert Orchid, previously the only horse to have won the King George VI Chase four times. But Findlay, who gambles for his living, insists that his fidelity to Denman is based sooner on professional judgement than sentiment.

And, in fairness, his typically ebullient refusal to raise a white flag does not imply the faintest indifference to Kauto Star's record-breaking performance at Kempton on Boxing Day. Quite the contrary, in fact. Findlay acknowledged yesterday that the stakes for the third Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup showdown between the two neighbours have now been raised to such giddy heights that everyone can be a winner.

"If they can both stay sound, and both get there – that's all anyone wants now," he said. "Just to be part of it would be absolutely magic. If Kauto Star does us for toe in the Gold Cup, as a sports fan, I'd absolutely love it. And I genuinely mean that. As a purist, you've just got to be there. Anyone who ain't there, ain't got a clue!"

Last season Kauto Star became the first horse ever to retrieve the Gold Cup, having been bludgeoned aside by the upstart Denman in 2008. Paul Nicholls, who trains both horses, believes Kauto Star was below his best that day; but then he holds the same to be true of Denman, when roles were reversed in March. Denman had a pulmonary problem the previous autumn and, having very nearly been scratched from the Gold Cup, surpassed expectations to finish second. And he looked as belligerent as ever in the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury last month, producing a weight-carrying performance that itself invoked comparisons with Arkle.

"I don't think Paul Nicholls ever thought Denman superior to Kauto," Findlay said. "But I do think that performance, in the Hennessy, really surprised him. We knew we were 'a million' [to one] for the Gold Cup last season. And even I have to concede Kauto might not have been on top of his game the day we beat him. So if Nicholls can get them both there, then this will be the one that sorts them out. And even to be part of that would be unbelievable. I just think in the Gold Cup everything is in our favour. If we beat Kauto at Cheltenham, you might still be able to argue that he's the better horse. But if he beats us round there, fair and square, he's the better horse – end of story."

Findlay was certainly not immune to the sense of wonder that suffused Kempton, where Kauto Star jumped exuberantly and eventually careered over 30 lengths clear. But he suspects that the horse is ideally suited by the demands of the King George. "I lumped on him yesterday, especially in running," he said. "I thought he was 1-10 after three fences, but you didn't have to be a genius to work that out. The second, third and fourth favourites were already beat. But then I think that's what Kauto does round Kempton, he's a machine. OK, so there wasn't much substance to the race – but to the eye he was just breathtaking. It might sound ridiculous, but he reminded me of Curlin [the American dirt champion] the first time he raced in Dubai. He looked a completely different breed of animal from the rest. The way he picked up, half a mile out, I just loved it."

Nicholls yesterday described Kauto Star as "right as rain" and will now freshen him up for Cheltenham; Denman seems likely to frighten away any earnest opposition in the Aon Chase at Newbury in February.

Timeform, who accorded Denman a rating of 181 after the Hennessy, yesterday raised Kauto Star 7lb to 191 – a mark surpassed only by Flyingbolt (210) and Arkle (212) in their 60-year history, and matched only by Mill House. The very fact that Mill House, Flyingbolt and Arkle were all contemporaries surely warrants profound scepticism about the relative validity of their ratings, but Arkle has for too long been too sacred a cow for anyone to climb down now. Anyone who persists in the fantasy that Arkle was fully 21 lb better than Kauto Star on Boxing Day is inviting the arched eyebrow.

Findlay may not be quite so venerated an authority, and can only go by what he has seen, but he puts it pretty well. "Yes, I still want to be with Denman in the Gold Cup," he said. "But it's got to such a scale now, it's unbelievable. I'm 48, and I've been watching races since I was 14. And I've never seen anything like it."