Kauto Star can reclaim aura of invulnerability
From the bold Captain Becher taking his famous plunge in 1839 to the brazen Liver Birds who will turn up in flocks (though barely in frocks) over the next three days, the years of history at Aintree make that affair at Cheltenham last month look something of a sporting johnny-come-lately.
And by late Saturday afternoon another horse will have earned Turf immortality by winning the 161st running of a long-distance handicap which would have no significance in the greater scheme of events, in racing or a wider context, but for the small matters of its unique course, the extraordinary challenge it presents to man and beast, and an unremitting roll of honour of derring-do, fairytale and romance.
But even before this year's Grand National, racegoers are guaranteed a series of heart-stoppers and heart-warmers, starting this afternoon with the appearance of two genuine, much-beloved, superstars.
Even Paul Nicholls admitted after his Gold Cup clean sweep that the victory of Denman was rendered bittersweet by the defeat of Kauto Star, a horse he adores, and many have looked askance at his decision to pitch the dethroned champion back into the fray in the Totesport Bowl only 20 days after a contest that could have dented him both mentally and physically.
But the trainer, who has had daily feedback from the eight-year-old's saddle from equally besotted head lad Clifford Baker, yesterday dispelled any worries the gelding's legion admirers may have about their hero's welfare. "If I'd had a single doubt during the last fortnight he just wouldn't be running," he said. "Clifford has been riding him every day and knows him better than any, and he's happy."
Despite Kauto Star's eclipse, Nicholls remains convinced that his performance in Gold Cup defeat was better than that in victory. "It was a much better race this year," he added. "The stats and time show that, the ratings show that. Three miles and a furlong round this track will suit him very well and if he runs anywhere near to his best he will be hard to beat."
The last time Kauto Star (2.35) ran at Aintree he met defeat by course specialist Monet's Garden, who took advantage of race-fitness, a pull at the weights and his optimum trip. With none of those advantages today, the dashing grey's trainer, Nicky Richards, is reserving judgement about picking up the gauntlet again, though his alternative task – to take on Kauto Star's brilliant young stablemate Master Minded tomorrow – is hardly easier. "There is a bit of rain around," said Richards, "and I didn't want to take any chances in case it turns out slow. But he'll probably run in the Bowl."
Conversely, Our Vic, who took the shorter Ryanair Chase at Cheltenham in first-time blinkers, would likely welcome a downpour. Last year's Bowl winner, Exotic Dancer, has had to defer to Kauto Star every time they have met, and the eight-time Grade One winner's own stablemate Gungadu, while a good, tough stayer, is not judged fit to polish his shoes at home.
In terms of public adulation even Kauto Star might have to kneel to Inglis Drever (2.00); Simon Cowell himself would have found it hard to remain dry-eyed as the brave little bay took an unprecedented third World Hurdle last month. Like Nicholls, his trainer, Howard Johnson, is taking a measured risk in going to the well again, but then most of his rivals today also ran at Prestbury Park.
Cheltenham plays to Inglis Drever's strengths and he did meet defeat at Aintree 12 months ago. But he is a better horse this year and today's field arguably not as good. He will probably win, but the value bet may be to side each-way with Millennium Royal, his trainer's pick ahead of the World Hurdle runner-up, Kasbah Bliss.
The sub-plot to the opening two races is the battle for the £200,000 seasonal points contest that is the Order of Merit. Kauto Star, the holder, is two points clear of Liverpool Hurdle contender Lough Derg.
The week's first Grade One prize provides a clash between Triumph Hurdle winner Celestial Halo and Binocular (3.10), who missed the four-year-old Cheltenham crown to take on his elders in the Supreme Novices, and beat all bar Captain Cee Bee. That may prove to have been the more meritorious performance.
The first race over the National fences is the Fox Hunters. With the official going good to soft, the suggestion is last year's third, Where Now (3.45), who will enjoy the ease underfoot.
Last year's Grand National fourth, Philson Run, is now guaranteed a run on Saturday with the news yesterday that Nigel Twiston-Davies-trained Ollie Magern is lame and will miss the £800,000 marathon. The one now sweating below the cut, and the verdict of Opera Mundi's connections once they have assessed the ground, is Irish raider Dun Doire; the final 40 declarations will be made this morning, with the next four on the list as reserves.