A sporting superstar competes in Ulster on Saturday — but catch him while you can.
The great Kauto Star contests the JNwine.com Chase at the Down Royal Festival — and at 10 years of age this could be his last year of performing at the peak of his powers.
Double Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Kauto Star has brought jump racing into the public consciousness, much like the famous Desert Orchid before him.
And Ulster’s 15-times champion jockey — and BBC Sports Personality 2010 contender — Tony McCoy feels Kauto Star may have overtaken even Desert Orchid in the greatness stakes.
“I always felt that Desert Orchid was the best horse I had ever seen — and don’t forget that I won a King George on Best Mate, who also won three Gold Cups,” said McCoy, currently leading the chase for an unprecedented 16th successive jockeys’ title.
“But now Kauto Star is as good a horse as I have ever seen.
“Down Royal are so lucky to have Kauto Star going over,” said the 36-year-old from Moneyglass, County Antrim.
Champion trainer Paul Nicholls sends his stable star to Down Royal for a big-money race that could be the launching pad for a record fifth successive King George VI Chase at Kempton Park on Boxing Day.
McCoy added: “Kauto Star is obviously getting older — like all of us — but he has won the last four King Georges and, although he fell at Cheltenham, there has been nothing to suggest that he is on the way down.
“So you have got to respect him.”
Despite being entered in the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury on November 27, it is likely the JNwine.com Chase will be Kauto Star’s last race before the Kempton showpiece.
Although Kauto Star — who won this race in 2008 — will start odds on favourite on Saturday, the prize fund of almost €150,000 ensures Nicholls’ charge is no certainty.
Kauto faces stiff competition from Sizing Europe and China Rock, while the only Ulster-trained contender Killyglen — from the Larne stable of Stewart Crawford — is sure to attract each way support.
Killyglen brings a sprinkling of stardust to the occasion as well, with 2008 Cheltenham Gold Cup winning jockey Sam Thomas — victorious on Denman — in the saddle.
Ruby Walsh rides Kauto Star on Saturday, a union of old pals who have been through a lot together over the years.
Walsh was on board for Kauto Star’s 2008 JNwine.com Chase success, the four successive King George victories, plus the 2007 and 2009 Cheltenham Gold Cup triumphs. That latter win saw Kauto become the first horse to regain the Gold Cup.
The Kildare jockey was also in the hotseat as Kauto hit the deck when favourite for the Cheltenham Gold Cup earlier this year, and Walsh suffered the heartbreak of finishing second in the race in 2008 to Denman — after having the choice of both the Nicholls horses.
Kauto Star is 5-1 second favourite for the Cheltenham Gold Cup in March, just behind last year’s winner Imperial Commander.
McCoy, who won the 1997 Cheltenham Gold Cup on Mr Mulligan, is confident Kauto Star has another King George in the tank but admits a third Cheltenham blue riband triumph would be a massive ask.
“I think it might be harder for him to win another Cheltenham Gold Cup than a King George,” said McCoy.
Although the likes of Best Mate, Arkle and Cottage Rake won three successive Cheltenham Gold Cups, were Kauto Star to land a third in five years, it would complete a sustained period of dominance unknown in the race. Throw in a possible five King Georges, and it’s a record no other horse comes close to matching.
Kauto Star’s great rivalry with 2008 Gold Cup winner Denman has served to fire the imagination, taking the sport beyond the confines of racing and into the mainstream.
In boxing terms, Kauto is Muhammad Ali to Denman’s George Foreman, the former a gifted athlete easy on the eye, the latter a relentless powerhouse, at times crude but always effective.
The two could clash in one or both of this season’s King George and Cheltenham Gold Cup.
And how things turn out for Kauto Star at Down Royal will provide a strong indication of how the season ahead is likely to develop and how the challenges that lie in store are likely to be met.
Those lucky enough to be at Down Royal on Saturday — and those tuning in to Channel 4’s live coverage — will get the chance to see one of the true greats.
Down Royal is renowned for its entertainment facilities, perfect for those perhaps not so interested in the racing itself.
But Saturday is a truly unique occasion — so as the clocks tick past 2.00pm, put down your glasses and head out towards the track to salute a racing legend in what will probably be his last ever appearance on Irish soil.
Kauto Star’s opponents in the testing three-mile showdown have an opportunity to inflict a rare defeat on a racing superstar.
Kauto Star should win, but on Saturday winning is not the be all and end all.
What this wonder-horse achieves in the coming months will go a long way towards securing his legacy in one of sport’s most demanding arenas.
Enjoy him while you can.