Three deaths at Cheltenham add to fears for Kauto Star
Punters crave a fairytale Gold Cup win for the great Kauto Star – some just pray he'll survive the race
THE CLASH of the Titans is on. The final declarations for the Cheltenham Gold Cup were made this morning and Kauto Star, Britain's most popular racehorse, will be lining up in Friday's classic, to renew his rivalry with last year's winner Long Run.
Kauto Star, a dual winner of the Gold Cup and regarded by many judges as the best steeplechaser since the legendary Arkle, was only rated 50-50 to take his place in the field after he took a heavy fall in training two-and-a-half weeks ago. But on Monday, his trainer Paul Nicholls gave the 12-year-old the go-ahead to take part in jump racing's Blue Riband contest after he had excelled in a work-out.
If 'Kauto' prevails in Friday's encounter, then those present will witness one of the most remarkable sporting comebacks of all time.
Last May, after a poor performance at Punchestown, there were calls for Nicholls's veteran to be retired. At the age of eleven, how could he possibly recapture the form that he had once shown, the pundits argued.
But then at Haydock in November, something quite extraordinary happened. Kauto Star took on Long Run, who had beaten him so convincingly in the 2011 Gold Cup, and trounced his younger rival by eight lengths. Then at Christmas, he beat Long Run again, landing his record fifth King George at Kempton Park.
Kauto Star, in the twilight of his career, and at an age when most racehorses go into steep decline, seemed to be hitting new heights. The question now is - can Kauto do it again and beat Long Run, five years his junior, for a third time?
The stats are very much against him. No horse as old as 12 has won the Gold Cup since 1969 - and only two horses as old as 12 have ever won the race in its 88-year history. The distance of the race arguably plays more to Long Run's strengths, too. The horses' two previous encounters this season both took place on flat, speedy tracks over 3m, and at Kempton, Long Run was closing at the finish. The extra two-and-a-half furlongs on Friday - and the famous Cheltenham uphill finish - should suit him.
Yet, while the head says Long Run, Kauto has shown with his extraordinarily gutsy performances this season that in racing it sometimes pays to let your heart rule your head. Kauto has broken records so many times before - and if any horse is going to win the Gold Cup at the advanced age of 12 it is likely to be him.
If Nicholls's charge is still in front two fences from home on Friday, then the roar from the Cheltenham crowd will be deafening. "He is the horse who transcends betting," says the Racing Post's Lee Mottershead. "Whether you back him or not, even if you end up backing one of his rivals, you will most certainly cheer loudest for Kauto Star."
The excitement and anticipation of Kauto's many fans in the build-up to the big race is tinged with apprehension, however. Risks of injury or even worse are, unfortunately, an inherent part of National Hunt racing and it's a concern that the great chaser has fallen twice before at the Cheltenham Festival, most recently in the 2010 Gold Cup, when he was lucky to escape with his life.
"I have a horrible feeling the fall [in training] was a sign to say 'that's enough'. Hope I'm wrong but his jumping is so suspect round Cheltenham," was the comment of one Kauto Star fan on the Racing Post's website.
We were reminded of the awful downside of the sport again at Cheltenham yesterday, when on the opening day of the four-day festival, no fewer than three horses lost their lives.
They included the "loveable veteran" Garde Champetre, a 13-year-old having his 13th run over Cheltenham's cross- country course, who suffered a leg fracture in a race he had won twice before. Scotsirish, who also sustained a fracture in the same event, and Educated Evans, who broke a hind leg in the last race of the day, were also destroyed.
So while Kauto Star's legion of fans - he has over 10,000 followers on Facebook - will be praying for a fairytale victory, the overriding concern is for their hero's welfare. As one supporter put it: "Win, lose or draw on Friday I just hope he comes back safe and well".