The spirit had seemed as willing as ever but finally there are younger legs on the park. Yesterday, as Kauto Star finally ceded the crown he has long worn so proudly, they belonged principally to the gifted six-year-old Long Run, 12-length winner of the delayed King George VI Chase. And if there was disappointment in the old champion's corner that his tilt at an unprecedented fifth victory in the winter showpiece ended with a weary third place, there was also acceptance that the changing of the guard is the nature of the game.
"Maybe age has caught up with him at last," said his trainer, Paul Nicholls, of the great public favourite who turned 11 with the new year. "He's not showing any signs of it at home but it's here that he's got to prove it. And the winner is one of the next generation who has looked like a really good horse."
Equally, there was no triumphalism in the defeat of the great horse from Nicky Henderson, responsible for both Long Run and runner-up Riverside Theatre, and on the day, playing the role of the man who shot Bambi's mother. "I would have been the first to stand and cheer if Kauto Star had won," he said, "but the wheel turns and today was ours."
As Long Run was one of five winners here for Henderson's Seven Barrows stable, including an equallysparkling one from the reigning Champion Hurdler Binocular, that can be considered a considerable understatement. But even with that haul came a reminder of the levelling qualities of the game with the death at Warwick of one of the yard's promising novices, Peveril.
Victory for Long Run, a first King George for Henderson, was a family affair. The French-bred gelding carries the colours of entrepreneur Robert Waley-Cohen and is ridden by his 28-year-old son Sam, amateur in status but as professional in attitude as his day job of running his private dental practice business allows.
Waley-Cohen Jnr handed most of the credit to Long Run afterwards but he had given his mount a peach of a ride as he tracked the pace set by Nacarat for a circuit and a half before leading at the head of the straight, three fences out. "He got into a terrific rhythm with his jumping," he said. "I had my eye on Kauto Star all the way, waiting for him to come. When I saw he was not going that well I had a decision to make, whether to wait or go on and trust his stamina. In the end the horse made the decision himself and jumped me to the front. We took the sword to the king."
Long Run and Binocular, who set up his defence of his Cheltenham crown in the Christmas Hurdle, gave Henderson the first double in the two Grade One races since Fred Winter completed it in 1973. He now feels minded to aim Long Run at the Cheltenham Gold Cup rather than the shorter , and less prestigious, Ryanair Chase. "They say that it's an easy three miles here," he said, "but they've got to stay it properly, especially in a race like this which is always run at a furious pace with no chance of a breather. The way he finished I don't think he needs a drop in trip."
Long Run is second favourite for the Festival showpiece at around 6-1, behind last year's winner Imperial Commander. Kauto Star, who has two Gold Cups on his CV as well as his four King Georges, has been pushed out to 10-1 in most lists and whether or not he runs must be in the balance.
Even the skills of Tony McCoy could not kindle the brilliance he has shown in the past; there was none of his trademark elan in his galloping or jumping yesterday. He might have been second but for a mistake two out but he would not have caught Long Run.
Nicholls admitted that he saw the writing on the wall for the 4-7 favourite from the first strides of the contest. "I never thought he'd win at any point," he said. "He always seemed to be labouring and looked as if he's just lost half a yard all round. He's done well to even be here five times and there are no excuses."
Kauto Star cannot call time on his own career but must rely on the good sense of those closest to him to make whatever decision is in his best interests, which may be sooner rather than later. His owner, Clive Smith, mindful that his favourite escaped with his life after a fall in last year's Gold Cup, may not tempt fate again. "We'll see how he is in the next week," he said, "I treasure him and admire him for what he has already done."