11 March 2007

Cheltenham should stand without comparisons. For some reason, the racing world has started saying, “It’s our Olympics.” No it’s not. It’s nothing like the Olympics. It’s every year. It’s always in the same place. It’s one sport. It’s the climax to a whole campaign. For believers it’s become a Rite of Spring.

To make the pilgrimage to the Cotswolds is to harness yourself to hope. Of course, there’s the happy if often self-deluding thought that you might back a winner, but deep down there is more than that. It’s the knowledge that for all the talk and drink and billions bet, every race will come down to that raw moment of truth when man and horse have to dig deep.

It will happen to everyone. Most of all it, will happen to Kauto Star.

What will define this Cheltenham is how he handles it. However thrilling the first three days – and we begin with a Champion Hurdle every bit a match for the Night Nurse-Monksfield-Sea Pigeon showdowns of 30 years ago – it is for the Gold Cup that we hold our breath. Kauto Star, the most speedily brilliant contender in living memory, brings all his assets to the table. But he also brings flaws, which have already filled a whole forest’s worth of newsprint.

It’s a good job he can’t read the papers, and over the next few days it would be better if Paul Nicholls and Ruby Walsh could avoid them, too. Nicholls’ climb to the top of his profession has been based on a special mixture of hyperactive ambition and calm, open, common sense. But in this Gold Cup countdown, even his legendary patience has sometimes looked a touch frayed at the edges.

“The horse is a very good jumper,” he said a week ago. “But he has made a couple of mistakes. We don’t know exactly why, but Ruby and I have discussed it and we are going to keep those discussions between ourselves.

It was a rare but necessary touch of starchiness, for those discussions are as likely to centre not so much on Kauto Star’s legs as his head.

As luck, or ill-omen, would have it, I have stood at the last fence when Kauto Star blundered so badly at Kempton and Newbury this season, and was beside the obstacle when he missed out in Cheltenham’s Champion Chase last March. Back then the momentum of the early pace capsized him into a heavy fall, and the common factor about this season’s mistakes is that they were caused by a lack of commitment to the leap. The horse tries not to jump over the fence but to step on to it and off again. It’s terrifying to watch. Heaven knows what it’s like to sit on.

But it doesn’t have to be like this. At Haydock in November, in his first race over three miles, Kauto Star dropped into an easy mid-race rhythm, coasted up to the last and put up the most impressive display of the season. If he can hit that rhythm again on Friday, I have no doubt that he will jump sweetly round Cheltenham and swamp his far slower opponents up the hill. The key question is whether his head or his rivals will let him.

For the extra adrenalin that makes Kauto Star special adds extra risk. The horse can get himself so revved up that he puts his stamina and safety at risk by pulling too hard in the early stages. With Walsh’s quiet, deep-leathered style you could hardly spot it, but at Newbury the jockey complained that the horse was much too “free” with him and at Cheltenham last year Nicholls still blames himself for having Kauto Star too fresh after a lay-off since December.

No one wants to advertise such a problem for fear of handing advantage to others. But none of this will have been lost on Tony McCoy who, on L’Ami, was locked close to Walsh and Kauto Star all the way round Newbury. On Friday, he will be tracking the favourite on Exotic Dancer, whose quirky, ear-plugged talent has flourished at Cheltenham this season. If Kauto Star settles into his rhythm along the inside, Exotic Dancer should not have the guns to trouble him. But if Kauto Star’s adrenalin tap switches on too early, the fences could be snatched at and the final hill could be beyond him.

The best time to have a bet in the Gold Cup would be to make a judgement on Kauto Star after five fences. No such choice in the Champion Hurdle when all four principals, and possibly Straw Bear, could still be in with a hit at the final flight. Logic goes with the progressive Detroit City and possession with the reigning champion, Brave Inca, but the way Hardy Eustace beat that horse last time and the insistence of trainer Dessie Hughes of the excellence of his charge’s condition makes me think that Hardy Eustace could take his third “Champion” back to Ireland.

Hughes has already written his own chapters in the Cheltenham story, having as a jockey won both the Champion Hurdle with Monksfield and the Gold Cup with Davy Lad. But one of the unique beauties of the place is that the absolute amateur can write his name, too.

Last September Dr Richard Newland was granted a permit to train half a dozen horses with his wife and three daughters in spare time from his medical duties near Worcester. This week two of them, Burntoakboy in the Coral Cup and Overstrand in the World Hurdle, run with chances at the Festival. The bookies have Burntoakboy as more of a threat than Overstrand, but the doctor is understandably a bit biased towards the latter.

Bought, as was Burntoakboy, for just £10,000 (less than a 10th of the cost of Kauto Star), Overstrand has already won three of his six races this season and more than £120,000 in prize money. The form book says he has a bit to find, but the good doctor is convinced that the extra distance will produce extra talent.

At Cheltenham, the dream never dies.

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