Two of the Turf's biggest names went back to basics yesterday. First connections of Kauto Star rejected a hazardous experiment in his historic bid for a fifth consecutive success in the William Hill King George VI Chase, deciding to keep him fresh for Kempton on Boxing Day rather than take in the Hennessy Gold Cup en route. And then Johnny Murtagh, who had announced his departure from Ballydoyle a week previously, cast that decision in a fresh light by accepting a contract to ride the 120 horses trained for the Aga Khan in Ireland.
As a result, Murtagh will renew the partnership that first introduced him to the riding elite. The Aga Khan's principal trainer in Ireland is John Oxx, to whom Murtagh served as stable jockey from 1992 to 2003. During that time, he rode 18 Group One winners in the famous green and red silks, notably Sinndar in the 2000 Derby and Arc. Nowadays the Aga Khan also has 30 horses with Michael Halford, with whom Murtagh also worked closely prior to his successful, three-year stint at Ballydoyle.
The revival of these old associations is said to have been merely opportunist, albeit you could hardly be surprised had Murtagh at least been given some tacit encouragement before quitting a position as coveted as the one at Ballydoyle. The Aga Khan has a parallel arrangement in France, with Christophe Lemaire, and his stud manager, Pat Downes, explained that no slight was intended on Oxx's stable jockey, Fran Berry.
"Johnny obviously became available, and we have always had a retained rider in France," Downes said. "His Highness and Johnny have had some very good days in the past. His Highness saw an opportunity to renew that partnership, and that has been sorted in the last 48 hours. Fran is a very good rider and has done great for us, but he doesn't yet have the international experience of Johnny, who is a world-class jockey."
That perception is clearly injurious to Berry's credentials for the vacancy at Ballydoyle, where the dilemma remains whether to promote Colm O'Donoghue, who himself lacks that breadth of seasoning but certainly warrants the chance, or to prise an established name from commitments elsewhere.
The decision regarding Kauto Star was presumably rather more straightforward. Engrossing though it would have been to see him contest his first handicap, while still in his prime, the stakes on Boxing Day are simply too momentous. Giving so much weight to top-class handicappers – he was set to concede 8lb to Denman, his next door neighbour and old rival, and 28lb to everything else – would unavoidably have exposed Kauto Star to a hard race at Newbury on Saturday week.
Paul Nicholls, his trainer, will instead saddle Denman in what will itself be an unprecedented quest for a third Hennessy. After telephoning Kauto Star's owner, Clive Smith, Nicholls revealed their decision in his Betfair column. "We have decided that the horse has two priorities, the King George and the Gold Cup, and we weren't going to jeopardise those by going to Newbury," he explained. "Make no mistake, he was a likely runner at one stage. Having always loved the race, Clive was very keen, and I wouldn't have stood in his way."
They had three reasons for viewing discretion as the better part of valour. Firstly, Kauto Star had returned from his recent comeback at Down Royal "a little bit quiet"; secondly, there was the obvious danger of "leaving the King George behind" at Newbury; and finally, there was the absence through injury of his regular rider, Ruby Walsh.
Kauto Star's rivals at Kempton are likely to include Imperial Commander, but Nicholls first hopes to give the Gold Cup winner another hostile reception when he reappears in the Betfair Chase at Haydock on Saturday. Last year, Kauto Star beat Imperial Commander in a photo for the same race and this time round Nicholls will take him on with What A Friend.
Chris McGrath's Nap
Nicholas Pocock (12.20 Southwell)
Bred to stay but has been travelling strongly over a mile and could discover a new lease of life over this trip, especially on this gruelling surface. May have more ability than his rating allows.
* Next best
Club Tahiti (3.20 Southwell)
Has dropped down the weights and each of last three starts has offered more encouragement, not quite getting home over 10f on heavy ground last time. Unproven on this surface but looks the type to grind it out.
One to watch
For Non Stop (Nick Williams) is flourishing for his new trainer and pulled miles clear of the rest when bumping into a handicap "good thing" at Cheltenham on Sunday. Future chaser who looks sure to keep progressing.