Walsh's craft lifts Kauto Star into legend

For his trainer, unmistakably, he remains the lodestar. And it was hard to differ, as they stood together in the winner's enclosure yesterday, the moment gilded by the cold light of the plunging midwinter sun: Paul Nicholls, puffed out with pride and relief, and Kauto Star, steam rising off his flanks.

But the equilibrium between them, more clearly than ever, could be traced to the third panel in the triptych: the ghostly figure of Ruby Walsh, his rimy features disclosing little of the coruscating genius he has brought to the sport.

It is Walsh, palpably, who restores conviction to horse, trainer and public alike. Last month, he had his spleen removed after being trampled in a hurdle race at Cheltenham. Somehow he was back riding just four weeks later, but in the meantime Kauto Star had managed a third defeat in four starts, inevitably inviting anxiety that the first of them – a merciless business, at Cheltenham in March, at the hands of his next-door neighbour, Denman – had tipped him over the peak of one of the great steeplechasing careers of the modern era.

Yesterday, Walsh restored order, and it was like watching some Norse god of the night sky rounding up comets to form a constellation. His mount was suffused with confidence as he claimed a third consecutive success in the Stan James King George VI Chase – a feat matched only by Desert Orchid himself. Now Kauto Star is guaranteed an abiding place in the mythology of the horseracing Christmas, while his rivalry with Denman once again regains its vintage lustre.

Yet it took nothing elaborate from Walsh. To most who saluted this eight-length defeat of Alberta's Run, an outcome that already seemed inexorable on the home turn, the Irish champion was a mere passenger. The demands he made of the horse were simple but not coarse, bold but not reckless. It boiled down to such elementary matters as making sure the horse could see where he was going, a luxury he did not always enjoy at Haydock. But the punters knew what they would get from Walsh, and had backed the horse down from 6-4 to 10-11.

True, there were moments when Kauto Star hesitated, and conversely there was one occasion, seven out, when he was far too incautious for his own good. But Walsh kept on his case – hardly his default style – and in the end Kauto Star was skimming them like hurdles, albeit he persisted in his eccentric addiction to taking a liberty with the final fence.

In between, needless to say, he maintained a murderous gallop. The singular demands of this race, which have yielded so many repeat winners over the years, suit him down to the ground as a stayer with speed. In truth, they can hardly be reckoned a vintage lot behind him. Alberta's Run bounced back to outstay Voy Por Ustedes for second, the pair a long way clear of Briareus; Imperial Commander had dropped right away after blundering three out, while the Pipe pair ran deplorably. But with Denman waiting in the wings, this was one of those spectacles at once viewed through a prism of future nostalgia.

The one pity is that the man who trains both horses should let himself be so provoked by those who dared to wonder whether Kauto Star might be in decline. Nicholls feels affronted on behalf of the horse, believing that those who wish to see the Turf prosper owe him unswerving loyalty.

"I wish some people would give him the respect he deserves," Nicholls said. "Today he's shown how good he is. I'm just so, so pleased for the horse. We need horses like this in racing. They're good for the sport. Everybody's been slagging him off. I actually think he ran a better race in the Gold Cup than he did in the year he won it. Take Denman out of that race, he would have won nicely and people wouldn't be having the conversations they are."

But that is precisely the point. Debate and opinion nourish the sport far more effectively than unthinking veneration. But if Nicholls might be a little more gracious in victory, then allowances must be made for a man who plainly did not have the most relaxed of Christmas Days. And he decorously confined criticism of Sam Thomas's riding of Kauto Star at Haydock to observing that "we all know he did not have the best of days". Instead he reproached himself for running the horse too soon after his comeback success at Down Royal.

"In this game we learn every day," he said. "I made a mistake there and I'm man enough to admit that. I was very nervous before today. Reading all these things, it makes you wonder if you're seeing things differently from everyone else. You do start to doubt yourself. I just wanted the horse to go out there and show everyone what he could do. It's a big relief he's done that."

It is a good job Noel Meade is not as sensitive on behalf of Harchibald, who has been routinely maligned over the years for supposed cowardice under the whip. Harchibald's biggest problem has always been that he makes such a generous effort on the bridle that he leaves little in reserve, but he showed that he remains one of the very best hurdlers in these islands when outclassing his rivals for the Stan James Christmas Hurdle under a deft ride from Paul Carberry.

He does like a target, and Carberry gave him two by switching between rivals over the final hurdle. On good ground like this, he reckons his mount every bit as good as ever. "The lad who rides him at home felt he had never worked better," Meade said. "Paul said he felt so well he was frightened, and nothing frightens Paul. He did something I have never seen – he sat back at a hurdle on the back straight!"

Punjabi had a narrow lead when falling two out, compounding a trying afternoon for the man ostensibly challenging Nicholls for the trainers' title. Nicky Henderson had already seen The Market Man throw away his chance in the Nigel Clark Feltham Novices' Chase, doing well to keep his feet at all after taking off at least two strides too soon at the 14th. That left Breedsbreeze to wear down Massini's Maguire, in the process ensuring that both Walsh and Nicholls approached the big race with a spring in their step.

"Ruby was a big loss, the month that he was out," Nicholls admitted. "You always have your ups and downs, but it was a difficult time, without anything being wrong with the horses. They all seem to be responding now, anyway."

As for Breedsbreeze, he is now one of the favourites for the RSA Novices' Chase at Cheltenham, albeit Nicholls confessed that he may have a predilection for flat, right-handed tracks like this. He also considers him best fresh, so he may become yet another horse given a break until March.

That is certainly the plan for Kauto Star, leaving Denman a clear run in his preparations for the rematch. In the meantime, their trainer is back at his roost. Even his stable's one reverse yesterday conformed poignantly with the theme of its renewal, as Tatenen, the outstanding novice beaten in a photo at Leopardstown, was ridden by none other than the hapless Thomas. If the poor fellow needs cheering up, however, he does have one comfort. For there must now be every chance that Walsh will once again reject Denman at Cheltenham.

"I'll worry about me getting there in one piece first," Walsh grinned. Judging from the way Nicholls was talking yesterday, he will not be the only one.