If Kauto Star’s shining Denman’s done for
Perhaps only the most stubborn punters will still be persevering with the form book, after some of the results earlier in the week. As they contemplate the Festival's climax, however, they can surely return it to the shelf. For the outcome, this time, is clearly legible in the stars.
Uncannily, it was precisely ten years ago today that a mare named Kaulto Relka gave birth to a colt foal on a small stud, Le Lion d'Angers, in western France.
The coincidence, to many, would suggest that destiny has summoned Kauto Star, not only to another Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup, but also to the aid of those striving to bring a sport from the periphery of mass attention.
These evangelists also perceive some benign design in the fact that Denman, the only horse to beat Kauto Star in the past three Gold Cups, should be housed in the adjacent stall.
After all, their trainer is adamant that neither was quite at his peak on the day he was beaten by his next door neighbour. As such, this was always going to be the decider — and, back in November, it really did look too close to call.
Denman, having suffered a pulmonary disorder last winter, amazed Paul Nicholls when regrouping to chase home Kauto Star in the Gold Cup.
And his reappearance success — one of the great weight-carrying performances in the Hennessy Gold Cup — confirmed that he was right back to his belligerent best.
Only the previous week, moreover, Kauto Star had scraped through an undignified skirmish with Imperial Commander on his own reappearance, at Haydock. Could this be the first intimation of decline?
Such concerns proved laughable, however, when Kauto Star produced the most visually astonishing exhibition of his career at Kempton on Boxing Day.
He was simply murderous, demoralising his opponents with his all-round gusto before hurtling clear in the straight. It makes no sense, after so long and exacting a career, but he looked better than ever.
The ball, unmistakably, was back in Denman's court. And, asked to dispatch a gentle lob at Newbury last month, he promptly missed it altogether.
Ridden for the first time by Tony McCoy, he made an appaling mistake four out and could not recover from a worse one at the next.
Suddenly his nickname, The Tank, had acquired an unwelcome new dimension. Denman was lucky to get back to his feet with only his reputation damaged.
Even before his first blunder, McCoy had been dismayed by Denman's failure to see off his pursuers, and plenty have since claimed that he was already beaten at the time.
At Festival preview nights, meanwhile, one expert after another has decided that the game is up for Denman, offering various amateur diagnoses about the state of his heart and mind.
It is amazing quite how unanimously the horse has been abandoned.
Assuming Kauto Star shows his own best form, however, the bottom line is that he may be invulnerable to whichever Denman turns up.
Owner Harry Findlay pins his hopes on a slog, but the conditions make that seem unlikely now.
“Yes, the other problem is the bloody ground,” he grumbles.
“People ask whether there's a chink in Kauto Star's armour. Well, I know Paul Nicholls thinks this is completely mad, but does he really get three and a quarter miles round Cheltenham, given a proper test and give in the ground?”
As things stand, however, Findlay has himself been toying with backing Kauto Star at odds-on.
Those of us lacking his nerve and resources are instead left to seek some each-way value elsewhere.
Imperial Commander is best fresh, as he showed when unlucky not to beat Kauto Star at Haydock, and he loves this track. Nicholls, however, is adamant that Kauto Star was nowhere near fit at Haydock. He runs an improver himself in Tricky Trickster, who will presumably not be recklessly exposed to the early pace with his main priority in mind, at Aintree next month.
As such, he could certainly run into a place.
But the one horse you would want to back for an ordinary Gold Cup — one, in other words, where the standard is less merciless than that set by a horse like Kauto Star — is Cooldine.
He adored the demands of the novice championship here last year, travelling and jumping magnificently, and his trainer predicts another big step forward after that encouraging rehearsal at Leopardstown last time.
He is an excellent bet to produce a career best, albeit that is unlikely to be good enough — unless Kauto Star, on his birthday, suddenly begins to feel his age.