Five star Kauto in a league of his own
You knew what to expect from the din even when Kauto Star passed the winning post with a circuit still to go, a nose in front of Nacarat — the grey whose share of the lead, through the first lap, had almost seemed suggestive of some spectral escort from Desert Orchid.
And now the ghost of Christmas past has at last been exorcised, his four wins in steeplechasing's midwinter championship surpassed in unforgettable fashion by the evergreen Kauto Star.
A giddy sense of privilege coursed through the packed stands, like a swig from the hip flask on a day of melancholy solstice grey.
As over 20,000 exulted in the ageless veteran's return, many wearing scarves in Clive Smith's colours, they must have thought of querulous millions trapped in stale sitting rooms around the country.
Times may be hard, but the year that gave the Turf a great Flat champion in Frankel now draws to a close with one of the most accomplished steeplechasers of all time.
A fifth William Hill King George VI Chase confirms the place of Kauto Star in the sport's pantheon, if not as its greatest champion, then certainly its most durable.
In fact, on the cusp of his 12th birthday, he looked as vibrant and indomitable as ever.
Though Long Run rallied bravely (below), Kauto Star never looked like yielding once Ruby Walsh had pressed for home a mile out.
The odds against such epoch-making longevity could be measured by twin contrasts.
First there was the poignant sight of Master Minded, representing the same owner and trainer as the winner, being led sore-footed from the track by Daryl Jacob.
He had been pulled up with a career-threatening injury.
Walsh, who had been sharing his joy with the crowd, spotted Jacob and they exchanged salutes.
Here, in identical raiment, were two men measuring the narrow margin between those twin impostors, triumph and disaster.
Then there was the memory of the way Long Run, that impudent young pretender, had appeared to usurp his dominion here last season.
A distant third that day, Kauto Star had seemed lethargic, palpably on the wane.
As one of four defeats in five starts, it seemed increasingly legitimate to wonder whether too much was now at stake to justify perseverance.
But Kauto Star forced a ring-rusty Long Run into errors at Haydock last month, but even Walsh suspected that the tables would be turned this time.
“We were ready at Haydock, and caught him on the hop,” he admitted afterwards.
“I thought he would be hard to beat today. But I said to (Nacarat's rider) Paddy Brennan down at the start: ‘I don't know what's going to happen, but I do know that this feels a million dollars.'“
As it turned out, Long Run contrived the only meaningful pursuit, reducing the gap to just over a length at the line.
Nicky Henderson, Long Run's trainer, was quick to seek out his counterpart Paul Nicholls and offer his congratulations.
“If he gets to Cheltenham in that form, he'll be the one to beat,” Nicholls declared.
But Betfred, the Gold Cup sponsors, took a different view in retaining Long Run as 5-2 favourite — albeit they did cut Kauto Star to 4-1 from 10-1.
“I don't know why, but Kauto wasn't quite right last year,” Nicholls said.
“I knew we had him in serious order today. It's just unbelievable — he's awesome.
“I said to Clive that unless everything was right I would retire him.
“I promise you that the slightest sign he is losing his enthusiasm and we will call it a day.
“Although he is 11, he has been acting like an eight-year-old at home. I will never have another like him.”
Walsh added: “He's lasted so long, that sets him apart.
“Arkle didn't last the same, nor did Mill House, nor any of those horses. He has outlasted them all. It's a fairytale.”