Cheltenham: Henderson relishes 'decider' as two legends prepare for Gold Cup battle
Last year, the race seemed to mark a changing of the guard. Long Run had not even been born when Kauto Star, a gallant third, won his first steeplechase for Paul Nicholls. Few could have envisaged that both camps might return to the Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup today with a score still to settle.
Robert Waley-Cohen, Long Run's owner, also happens to be chairman of Cheltenham racecourse. But he was just as eager, in both capacities, to see Kauto Star recover from his recent schooling fall to line up today. "Of course you want him there," he said. "Whether with my Cheltenham hat on, or as owner of Long Run, it's just the same. The glory for the winner is in beating the best around. You don't want to win, and then hear people say it was like the Moscow Olympics."
After beating Kauto Star twice last season, Long Run has been punished for his effrontery this time round. Nicky Henderson, a trainer already enjoying an unprecedented Festival, likewise wants them both at the top of their game to duke it out.
"We were 2-0 up, now it's 2-2, so this is the decider," Henderson said. "And you couldn't ask for a better place to settle it. It would be lovely to see them go down to the last together and fight it out. It's all to play for, and there isn't much between them.
"Kauto Star has been fantastic for racing, he's become a legend, and they'll all be there in their green and yellow scarves," he added. "I'll probably be very unpopular if we do happen to beat him. But I'm afraid that won't stop us trying."
Both men accept that Kauto Star is a more formidable opponent this time round. "With the benefit of hindsight, it probably did take him a long time to get over his crunching fall in the 2010 Gold Cup," Waley-Cohen said. "But perhaps he was not far off his best in the race last year. Remember, Long Run did break the track record even while looking at the crowd, not really concentrating."
Long Run is ridden by his son, Sam, a dashing amateur whose record over the Grand National fences, in particular, plainly identifies him as an outstanding horseman. That has not stopped some hurtful criticism this winter. "He was built up as the golden boy, so when things went a bit wobbly people had a bit of fun trying to take him down," Henderson said. "But the two of them get on really well together. I have total confidence in horse and rider, and always will."
Henderson does feel that Ruby Walsh rather took charge of both Kauto Star's races this season. "I think it's safe to say we'll be keeping an eye on what he's doing," he said. "But at Cheltenham you tend to wind up the pace, rather than kick for home a long way out. If you do that, there's another two and a half furlongs up a hill."
Waley-Cohen feels that his Haydock defeat merely confirmed Long Run a hard horse to stoke up, first time out. "Then, at Kempton, I think we lost the race over the first three fences," he said. "Everyone thought Nacarat would go off very quick, but the pace was actually pretty slow. Long Run was coming back at him at the end, and in another few strides we'd have been past him."
Henderson contends that neither horse nor rider has done much wrong since last year. "It's just Kauto Star appears to have got two years younger," he complained. "It's proved rather hard to get past him. But this is the decider. This is the day that matters."