Walsh's wish upon a Star comes true in the battle of Britain
Saturday 14 March 2009
He said that his big fear was waking up and discovering that it was still only Tuesday morning, but if Ruby Walsh had to choose his Groundhog Day he could not really improve on this. For in becoming the first horse to regain the Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup, Kauto Star had not just crowned an unprecedented orgy of winners for his jockey, but an entire steeplechasing epoch.
The bald record of history can be no less mendacious than the formbook, but not this time. Every point of reference implied something unique. No jockey had ever ridden more than five winners at the Festival; Walsh ended the meeting with seven. Paul Nicholls, meanwhile, has now been the leading trainer at five of the last six Festivals, the neck defeat of Celestial Halo here on Tuesday being all that divided him from a clean sweep of the four championship races. Having saddled the first three last year, this time he provided four of the first five, only Exotic Dancer intruding in third place. And then, lest we forget, there was the horse himself – stifling every last doubt with an exhibition that left an immediate, indelible imprint on the collective memory of the Turf.
In producing a performance so dynamic that it bordered on effrontery, Kauto Star mocked the gloomy portents bequeathed by the many champions broken by their endeavours on this hill. And its vintage quality was gloriously corroborated by the horse who led the pursuit as Walsh drove Kauto Star towards the last fence. For here, to the candid astonishment of their trainer, was Denman.
It had been Denman, of course, who ruthlessly wrested this prize from Kauto Star last year. He had seemed to pay a hard price, however, looking a shadow of his old self when finally resurfacing at Kempton last month. Nicholls confessed he had very nearly scratched Denman from the race a fortnight ago, but it soon became apparent it had been right to persevere.
Ridden far more conservatively than last year by Sam Thomas, Denman was soon travelling and jumping with all the gusto that he had lacked at Kempton. Neptune Collonges, third last year, was allowed to dictate until Snoopy Loopy briefly tried to raise the tempo after halfway, but Walsh was content to expose the favourite to a fairly undemanding gallop, prominent on the inside. A sumptuous jumper nowadays, Kauto Star was always tanking along, in fact going so eagerly into the third last that Walsh allowed him to take over earlier than he had intended. It was then that he turned to his right, and saw the horse who had so disappointed him at Kempton. He looked at Thomas in astonishment, and exclaimed: "I can't believe it!"
But Kauto Star would only have been vulnerable in the sort of slugging match they shared last year, and Denman could only stay on steadily as Walsh sent the favourite clear. There were 13 lengths in it at the line, but Denman pluckily managed to hold off Exotic Dancer, the runner-up in Kauto Star's first Gold Cup. That one had closed ominously from off the pace, but was never going to land a blow once coming under pressure. Neptune Collonges plodded on in fourth, ahead of My Will, whose rally augured well for his prospects in the John Smith's Grand National. Roll Along excelled in sixth, but Barbers Shop and Madison Du Berlais both folded meekly, while Albertas Run dropped away after a mistake four out.
On Wednesday, wearing the same silks on Master Minded, Walsh (below) had implied Kauto Star might not even be the best horse owned by Clive Smith, but repented now. "He's the greatest horse I've ridden," he said.
The brio in his mount, compared with last year, had been immediately apparent. Nicholls had expected little else, having decided an extra race at Ascot last season had taken the edge off him, and this time resolved to keep him fresh after his third success in the King George VI Chase on Boxing Day. Next season, indeed, he envisages giving him just two races on his way back here – one at Down Royal in November, then back to Kempton.
It was edifying to see Nicholls so enjoy the moment, with none of those defensive asides for those who had dared to quibble with the horse's greatness. But then he probably saw that Kauto Star has closed the correspondence himself, and was instead able to show equal joy in the resurrection of Denman. "He's astounded me," Nicholls said. "I'm very proud of him. For him to run like that reflects brilliantly on the horse and on the team for getting him here. That was my one worry today, that he would run badly, or that something would happen to him. With a good summer out, he'll be a force to reckon with next year."
The oddball partners who share ownership of Denman were of like mind. Paul Barber, the dairy farmer who is also Nicholls' landlord, was "emotionally drained" and confessed that he felt like "falling over and crying", while Harry Findlay was characteristically effusive. "As a gambler, as someone who bases things on pace, I can tell you he has run an absolute monster," he said. "After one fence, Kauto was 1-4. It was a switch back to two years ago. If we'd known our fellow was really well, the race would have been so different. We would have said 'bye-bye' to Neptune Collonges from the second. What's great for racing is there's a good chance they'll both be back next year, 6-4 each of two for the third round of the Battle of Britain. We can beat Kauto again, no question. I think we're favourite. End of story."
And that is the beauty of racing. The story is never over. In the very hour of Kauto Star's most unequivocal greatness, one of his most ardent admirers could stand yards away and vow to beat him next time. Then there is Cooldine, whose performance here on Wednesday identified him as a novice every bit as exciting as Denman in the same race two years ago. Walsh rode him, too, and a lot of water must pass under the bridge if all three are to gather here in 364 days' time. And, as Walsh noted, three days is ample to turn everything on its head.
"If you think back to the first race on Tuesday, Kempes stepped at the first hurdle, chance gone," he said. "Next race, Tatenen fell at the third, chance gone. Next Celestial Halo beaten a neck in the Champion Hurdle. And you think: 'Jeez, is it going to be one of those weeks?'" And his fortunes since will not be forgotten by any who left here – grateful for his example, and the lasting consolations of a moment in time – to resume uncertain lives of their own.
Gold Cup: How they finished
1 KAUTO STAR...Ruby Walsh 7-4 fav
2 Denman......... Sam Thomas 7-1
3 Exotic Dancer...Tony McCoy 8-1
Winning trainer: Paul Nicholls
Distances: 13 lengths, 21/2 lengths
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