With some alacrity, Paul Nicholls picked up the gauntlet slapped down by rival Jonjo O'Neill. The Gloucester-based Irishman had offered the view that a slow early pace in the Cheltenham Gold Cup in March contributed to the defeat of his charge Exotic Dancer by Nicholls' star performer Kauto Star, and the suggestion that he might employ a pacemaker to put a premium on stamina. Yesterday, the champion trainer continued the verbal fencing.
"If he does use a pacemaker, that will be no worry at all," he riposted, with a twinkle in his eye. "In fact, it would save us having to do so. We have always felt that a slow-run race does not suit Kauto Star. When he ran at Newbury in February last season, it was a crawl, he was a bit fresh, did not switch off and got himself into a bit of a muddle. A fast-run race helps him, because he can sit in behind the pace and then pounce."
The seven-year-old showed remarkable versatility last season, winning at the top level over two miles in the Tingle Creek Chase, three in the King George VI Chase and the extended three and a quarter of the Gold Cup. "We have no worries whatsoever about his stamina," Nicholls said, "He has never looked like not staying and if the Gold Cup had been three and a half miles he would have won over that.
"I think he's better over a trip; he can switch off and then use that devastating turn of foot from two out. Last year's Gold Cup was a bit of a one-off anyway; everybody was watching everyone else and they did not go a proper gallop early."
The Gold Cup victory netted Nicholls and his team at Ditcheat, in Somerset, a £1m bonus offered by Betfair. The road to the jackpot starts again at Haydock with the running of the Betfair Chase on 24 November, the first day of the Northwest Masters weekend continued the following day at Aintree.
The sponsors offer 6-1 against the bonus being taken and Nicholls reckons he is value for the repeat. "We'd have a really fair chance," he said. "Kauto Star is still only seven and coming to his prime. If he has got better, or even not deteriorated, then it's up to everyone else to improve to beat him."
The Haydock contest is the first of three legs in the Betfair series, with either the King George or its Irish festive season equivalent, the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown, as the middle one. This time, the distribution of the cash has changed; the share to the owner – last time Lagonda-loving millionaire Clive Smith – will drop £50,000 to £700,000 and that to the winning stable's staff is doubled to £100,000. The remainder is split equally between trainer and jockey.
"To be honest," said the exchange's spokesman, "£50,000 is neither here nor there to someone like Clive, if he'll forgive me. But twice as much would make a real difference to stable staff."
In the race for the jockeys' title, Seb Sanders stretched his lead to five over Jamie Spencer when a double at Newcastle yesterday brought his score to 161.