James Lawton: Can Kauto Star deliver a third Gold Cup?
Now we come to the most compelling question, the one that this afternoon carries the power to both rivet and maybe haunt all those who care about Kauto Star.
Kauto runs today in the Gloucestershire valley whose store of legend he has augmented so spectacularly and so the old expectation reaches into every corner of the land. It is one of such weight and passion it takes you back to the deeds of a national treasure like Desert Orchid, another horse whose magnetism reached beyond the brilliant details of mere performance. Yet this time there will be more than a touch of anxiety running through the huge throng.
For Kauto the obligation is not only to enchant his audience with extraordinary charisma but to deliver a third Gold Cup which in all his circumstances would be even more astonishing than the first two.
Yet there is another scenario, dark but inevitable against the reality of five lost horses so far in the current Festival, and it is the disturbing sub-plot behind the great 12-year-old's attempt to stride beyond his already unique achievement of winning back the most prestigious prize in steeplechasing.
To do it once was remarkable, twice would invade the imagination of those who follow the sport most passionately, yet all who gather in search of glory will also have that question on their minds.
It asks quite simply whether this may prove one race too far for the hero whose health has been so anxiously monitored since a training fall last month.
Trainer Paul Nicholls says that he is sound and bristling for action, and plainly even a hint of the reckless would verge on the sacrilegious. But here we have a game without any kind of guarantee and when owner Clive Smith gave his own assurances, he also touched on the unspoken fear when a wonder horse – Kauto Star is five years older than the young champion Long Run – reaches the foothills of old age.
Smith said: "The old saying is that you just hope they come back safe. That's never been more true than it will be here."
There are various levels of concern below the ultimate one that Kauto Star, who in his youth was a jumper who seemed almost perversely intent on causing maximum concern, might have a serious mishap on going which yesterday was heavily watered after the equine fatalities of the first two days.
Such anxiety is inevitable when you remember that scarcely a year ago a career that had put Kauto Star in the company of the great jumpers of living memory, from Arkle and Mill House through Dawn Run, Dessie and Best Mate, was reluctantly considered to be all run out, a sad relic of the days of his extraordinary duel with his stablemate Denman and the promise of his resistance to the challenge of the new star, Long Run.
At Punchestown last year Kauto looked almost a parody of the great horse he once had been.
Yet if he is a star of uncharted and most beguiling talent, one who seemed to delight as much in creating doubt and intrigue as soaring to the heights of his ability, he has always also been one of mystery. You think he is beaten and that the aura is gone, and then it envelops you like the Cotswold mist that has covered each morning here this week.
That is what happened when Nicholls and Smith agonised over whether, post-Punchestown, it really was time to call an end to one of the greatest adventures in the history of National Hunt.
It wasn't, as Kauto announced with pulverising performances in big races at Haydock and Kempton, and Long Run, the young nemesis, was not so much beaten as relegated to a different class. The drama returns today and when they go to the start the mood on the course will rarely have been so taut.
Ruby Walsh, the master of Cheltenham who has been required to fight so hard this week against the rise of rival Barry Geraghty along with his trainer Nicky Henderson's record-breaking run, will be expected to nurse from Kauto some of the last of his genius – and Long Run's jockey, the defiant millionaire young businessman and amateur rider Sam Waley-Cohen, will be fighting to prove that his winning performance last spring was rather more than beginner's luck.
That, the nation expects, will be the fine competitive balance of an afternoon of exquisite anticipation – but then there is that other possibility.
It is that great horses, like great fighters, can look for and fail to find, for one last time, the best of themselves while they operate at what seems briefly to be the centre of the world.
This happened here a decade ago when another horse of superb performance and extravagant personality, three-time Champion Hurdle winner Istabraq, came to defend his title under huge doubts about his fitness. Yet belief that this super-horse could beat all of his difficulties was huge – and there was a stunned silence when jockey Charlie Swan pulled him up after one circuit.
Swan announced that Istabraq had "never been right" and now the great champion lives in splendid retirement in County Limerick. His proud owner J P McManus regularly feeds him apples and once, early in his retirement from office, Istabraq was the star of a huge party. McManus even provided a red carpet.
No doubt Kauto Star has already earned such courtesies and indulgences but first he has been given the right to fulfil, maybe, an extraordinary destiny. Of course, it is one filled with risk but, as we have been reminded this week, in this place it is always going to be strictly a matter of degree.
Kauto Star's safe homecoming is one last priority today – but then so is the last reach for ultimate glory.
He has been pursuing it since his first trainer, a Frenchman, attempted to fend off a small army of eager buyers. Today it is Kauto Star's most familiar challenge – and a whole nation's dilemma. The people want him safe – and they want him winning. The great fear is that they may not prove to be quite the same thing.
Gold cup: Experts' verdict
Chris McGrath (Racing Correspondent) 1 Quel Esprit 2 Long Run 3 Kauto Star
James Lawton (Chief Sports Writer) 1 Long Run 2 Kauto Star 3 What A Friend
James Corrigan (sports writer)1 Midnight Chase 2 Long Run 3 Synchronised
Sue Montgomery (racing writer) 1 Kauto Star 2 Weird Al 3 Burton Port
Hyperion (tipster) 1 Long Run 2 Kauto Star 3 Burton Port
John Cobb (Associate Editor, Racing Post ) 1 Burton Port 2 Long Run 3 Midnight Chase