Star's return delights Nicholls but Monet's Garden holds sway

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In defeat, Kauto Star gave a performance at Aintree yesterday that caused his trainer to smile with anticipation and the bookmakers to scribble ever shorter prices for the champion's main targets at Kempton and Cheltenham.

Certainly there was no disgrace in going down by just a length and a half to Monet's Garden in the Old Roan Chase, trying to concede 14lb to a horse with top-grade ambitions and top-class credentials and who was perfectly suited to the track and trip. But the effort to get so close to the grey was an exhausting one, with encouragement from Ruby Walsh's whip being given halfway through the two and a half mile race.

So remote did Kauto Star's chance appear that in-running it was possible to back him at 29-1 on Betfair as Ashley Brook and Monet's Garden cut out the running. For a horse that had won the Tingle Creek Chase over two miles only last December, there seemed to be an inability to keep up with the pace.

Paul Nicholls, his trainer, was far from dismayed. "This was a starting point and we couldn't have asked for more. I've left plenty to work on," he said. "He did run lazy early on but my view now is that he wants a trip, and he has run his best races over three miles.

"This has set the season up brilliantly for us and he is a Gold Cup horse, which we will train him for now."

Coral clipped Kauto Star to 7-4 from 2-1 for the Cheltenham showpiece and to 5-4 from 11-8 for the King George VI Chase.

Nicky Richards, Monet's Garden's trainer, said: "To the second's credit he kept at it. He is a great horse. He'd be the only one who could give my horse weight like that – I promise you. It would have to be good ground for us to run in the King George, and his target will be back here in April."