4 December 2005

If courage has been hailed as “grace under pressure,” class is showing speed in the mud. That is what Kauto Star pulled from the leg-sapping Sandown Park turf to take down front-running Ashley Brook in the William Hill Tingle Creek Chase.

Overnight rain had made the Esher track into a stamina test even for this course-walking correspondent. The uphill haul from the last turn was a squelching slog underfoot. Standing at the last hurdle for the first race was to see horses having to dig deep. The Tingle Creek Chase is named after the fastest, most spectacular jumper ever to grace the Sandown track. This was hardly the place for imitation.

All credit then to Kauto Star, who joined Ashley Brook as they galloped towards the final three fences down the far side, which come within 100 metres of each other, and was springheeled enough over them to make the leader look leaden-footed Ashley Brook is all heart as is his rider Tony McCoy, but when they predictably renewed battle running to the Pond Fence (third last) Kauto Star quickened with a classy decisiveness which left his chestnut rival toiling in his wake.

The ground may have been boggy enough for the open ditch to be dolled off, but Kauto Star’s legs beat an almost easy rhythm through the mire. In his earlier life in France he had won four times in conditions described as “very soft.” If his class had survived the bottomless Auteuil surface, it was always going to flourish at Sandown.

This year’s Tingle Creek had been gloomily billed as Hamlet without not just the prince but the whole royal family – Moscow Flyer, Azertyuiop, and Well Chief, last December’s first three, all being absentees. Yet as Ashley Brook led the seven runners towards the first of the 13 fences only the most fussy of purists would not acknowledge this as a championship test.

McCoy was riding Ashley Brook for the first time and was faced with the dilemma of just how hard to press this habitual front-runner at the head of things. If he forced the pace too hard, he would turn up the hill on a very tired horse. If he failed to make it hurt, Kauto Star might be too quick for him. As Ashley Brook plugged on from the last fence to cut the finishing distance down to only a length and a half. It’s arguable that for once the great champion was a touch too tender.

Not that Ashley Brook’s connections were complaining. “I think that was a great run,” said trainer, Kevin Bishop. “He really needs better ground to fully attack but on this day, we must give the winner his due.”

Being only a five-year-old and running for just the fourth time over English fences, Kauto Star well deserved such praise.

For yesterday’s triumph has erased the thought of him being merely a question in one of those “what happened next?” trivia quizzes. Kauto Star was the horse who fell at Exeter last season and was remounted so quickly that he only failed by a whisker to catch the winner. But he also picked up an injury during that escapade and missed the rest of the campaign. “It might have been a blessing in disguise,” said trainer, Paul Nicholls, for whom the victory put him ahead of arch rival, Martin Pipe, in the Trainers’ Championship. “He’s only a young horse and is still improving. He has a lot of talent.”

So, too, does jockey Mick Fitzgerald although the adjective “young” has not applied for quite a while. One week on from his epic Hennessy comeback on Trabolgan, he is riding a wave crest almost as high as Nicholls’ stable. He had taken the first race on Green Iceni for the Trabolgan team of Nicky Henderson and on Kauto Star, had an ease and a class about him to match the power beneath.

Men and horses are likely to face very different conditions when the titles are up for grabs at Cheltenham in March. But winning is the most important habit and the contest before Kauto Star, the Sodexho Prestige Henry VIII Novice Chase, saw Racing Demon duly collect again over fences. His debut win had been a bitter sweet moment of consolation for Henrietta Knight, half an hour after Best Mate’s demise. Racing Demon has what it takes to become a long-lasting memorial.

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