Punchestown Festival: Final furlong beckons for legendary Kauto Star
After a day of high drama at Punchestown, jumping fans were coming to terms with the fear that they have seen the last of the legendary Kauto Star.
The 11-year-old is surely facing retirement after being pulled up at the rear of the field in a dramatic running of the Guinness Gold Cup, won by the 20/1 outsider Follow The Plan.
Kauto Star’s planned defence of the JNwine.com Champion Chase at the Down Royal Festival in November could now be shelved.
In the early stages yesterday Ruby Walsh seemed perfectly happy with the dual Gold Cup winner, positioning him in behind the leaders.
Then Walsh took the gelding to the outside in the back straight and, with one ominous tap of the whip, it became obvious that Kauto Star was running on empty. He dropped tamely away and was pulled up before the fourth-last.
Kauto Star was not distressed and was led back in by owner Clive Smith.
There have been numerous references to Kauto Star's advancing years from both trainer Paul Nicholls and Smith in the past 12 months, and before the Cheltenham Gold Cup both expressed the view that it might be the final time he ran in the race.
With the exception of when he has fallen or unseated, the horse had never before finished outside of the first three, but it appears a succession of hard races have now taken their toll.
Nicholls, though, didn't want to be drawn on the implications of the abject display.
He explained: “I said to (partner) Georgie before the race that I didn't care where he finished as long as he came back safe and sound, and after he jumped three or four it was obvious where he would finish.
“I'd done things a bit differently with him this year and had him fine-tuned for Cheltenham, and then might have been a bit easy with him before this.
“But I'm not going to make any rash decisions.
“It's hard to judge on one run, but if he came back in the autumn and ran once more like that then obviously we would retire him.”
While the favourite's submission overshadowed Follow The Plan's victory for trainer Oliver McKiernan and jockey Tom Doyle, the €96,000 contest proved an unsatisfactory spectacle for most punters.
Kauto Star's fellow British challenger Nacarat trailed in a long way last of four finishers, and the Hennessy Gold Cup hero Kempes - ridden by Tony McCoy - pulled up, having never landed a blow.
As the fancied horses capitulated, Roberto Goldback came through to lead turning in.
That one was still a length in front at the final fence, but a bad blunder proved costly, with rider Robbie Power catapulted from the saddle.
Follow The Plan and Doyle had proved a constant menace to Roberto Goldback up the straight.
While they were still most of a length down as they took the last, the result was far from certain before Roberto Goldback's exit.
As it was, Follow The Plan — third behind Nacarat at Aintree last time out — was left to inherit a healthy lead, one that he maintained by 11 lengths from Vic Venturi at the line.
Vic Venturi's Dessie Hughes stablemate Rare Bob plugged on for third, having made most of the running.
Follow The Plan's unlikely triumph was his second at this level, the first coming in the two-mile novice chase at Leopardstown in December 2008.
Speaking afterwards, Co Dublin-based McKiernan said of his eight-year-old: “Follow The Plan was suited by the fast gallop today as he failed to settle at Aintree.
“We were hoping he wouldn't be out of his depth today, and he's finished for the season now.
“He has had some leg trouble in the past, so hopefully he'll be okay.”
Of the fortuitous nature of the win, McKiernan added: “It was neck and neck, more or less. I'm not sure who'd have won, but it was going to be a good battle anyway.”
Colin Bowe also recorded a landmark success when the mare Askanna ran out a decisive victor of the Grade Two novice hurdle.
Co Wexford-based Bowe has made a huge impression since switching his focus from point-to-pointing to the track, and the €26,000 prize was his 15th win of the season, just his second with a trainer's licence.
A three-time winner over flights already, Askanna had pulled up on her most recent outing at Limerick in March, and was reversing the form of a third behind Mossey Joe at Cork in December when scoring by two lengths from that one yesterday.
The Betchronicle.com Champion Bumper saw Willie Mullins' Lovethehigherlaw prevail by a short head under the trainer's son Patrick, edging out Waaheb.
Ulsterman McCoy celebrated his 37th birthday by winning the Louis Fitzgerald Hurdle on Street Entertainer and punters welcomed him to the winners’ enclosure with a rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’.
Meanwhile, Dunguib will miss all of the 2011-12 season due to a leg injury it has been confirmed.