Cheltenham: Kauto Star must strike gold to silence his critics
As the eagerly anticipated Cheltenham Festival gets under starter’s orders today, Chris McGrath tries to answer five of the week’s biggest posers
1. Is racing legend Kauto Star over the hill?
Kauto Star has been one of the great modern steeplechasers. But is it fair to use those provocative words: “has been”?
Much to the indignation of his trainer, plenty are now inclined to give up on the champion who two years ago became the first horse ever to retrieve the Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup.
He must repeat the trick on Friday, after falling behind Imperial Commander last year, and there are many who believe that the years are catching up with him at the age of 11.
These do not, however, include Paul Nicholls. The champion trainer was greatly vexed by suggestions that Kauto Star should be retired after failing in his quest for an unprecedented fifth success in the King George VI Chase.
It turned out that the horse had excuses for a rather flat performance that day — he was found to be off-colour afterwards — but the key question is whether it should be treated in isolation. Some believe he has now been below his best in three consecutive starts.
This is unmistakably the most emotive issue of the week and it must be hoped that those who are ultimately vindicated in their opinion conduct themselves with due dignity.
2. Where is the Irish banker?
These are especially hard times for the Irish sport. Noel Meade, one of its top trainers in recent years, reckons that as many as half his patrons during the boom years had made their money in the construction business.
Since the Celtic Tiger lost its teeth, Meade's average number of individual runners per season has dwindled from around 140 to 80.
There have been corresponding falls, meanwhile, in the number of Irish visitors who contribute so much to the Festival atmosphere.
Local hoteliers reckon that numbers since 2008 have dropped by 30 per cent, to around 6,000, but that they are now holding steady.
The one thing the Irish have historically been able to rely upon, of course, is a horse to cover their expenses. Now that so many promising youngsters
are again being sold to Britain, however, the Irish lack an obvious “go-to” horse. At least they still have a “go-to” trainer in Willie Mullins. Apparently impervious to the gloom, he remains at the peak of a brilliant career and will surely be getting a few of his compatriots out of trouble this week.
3. Will absence make the heart grow fonder?
When Henrietta Knight resolved to prolong Best Mate's career by confining him to three runs a season, she was widely reproached for keeping the champion and his public apart.
The proof of the pudding was in the eating, however and he proceeded to win the Gold Cup three times. And her approach has now been embraced as the new orthodoxy by the very same trainers who prospered from Knight's subsequent neglect.
Indeed, the first four horses in the Gold Cup betting have between them ventured out of their stables just six times this season. Knight, to her credit, recognised that modern facilities made it easier for trainers to get horses fit at home.
Using races as part of a conditioning programme, moreover, potentially exposes a tiring horse to injury. At the same time, however, there is a danger that trainers are becoming too precious about Cheltenham. The journey to the Festival, spuriously presented as a compelling “narrative”, is in fact in danger of becoming fantastically dull.
Admittedly the situation was compounded, in midwinter, by an untimely spell of bad weather. But it would be nice to think that some of those who have kept their powder dry — perhaps only to see their horse unseat at the first fence — will decide that a bird in the hand may well be worth two in the bush.
4. Has Big Buck's finally met his match?
Big Buck's is not just the best staying hurdler we have seen in a while. On the ratings he's the best hurdler, full stop. He has won all 10 of his starts over timber since coming to Britain and majestic performances in the last two runnings of the Ladbrokes World Hurdle had seemed to set up a mere lap of honour when he goes for the hat-trick on Thursday.
Suddenly, however, his reign is under threat. The emergence of Grands Crus qualifies their showdown as perhaps the most gripping of the week — thanks in part to the very different way they go about their races.
In his trial over the course in January, Grands Crus proved the most visually striking winner of the season, pulverising a useful field on the bridle, but he does race very energetically.
The question is whether the more indolent bearing of the champion, who can sometimes hit a flat spot before regrouping, will prove a greater asset should it become a war of attrition on that notorious climb to the line.
5. Can you have too much of a good thing?
Six years after being extended into a fourth day, the Festival continues to expand.
This year it has acquired yet another new race — a novice chase over the intermediate distance of two-and-a-half miles. The idea is that it caters for horses that lack the pace for the Irish Independent Arkle Trophy, over two miles and the stamina for the RSA Chase, over three, but both the other races must inevitably be diluted.
There is little doubt that most of the runners would otherwise have run in one of them and quite feasibly have run very well, too. There are many precedents for staying horses excelling in the Arkle, with its unsparing tempo.
When the executive first began to expand the meeting, it was suspected that they would keep going until they got to 40 days and 40 nights — so long as they could maintain numbers through the gate.
In these more austere times, however, they must ask themselves afresh if it is not just revenues that have a finite ceiling.
They must choose between cash and kudos. Here is one instance, surely, when less is more.