31 December 2006
Follow what you know, not what you are told. That’s the true excitement in any sport. That’s what is going to make Kauto Star’s attempt to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup on Friday, March 16 almost unbearably thrilling to watch.
For we all know that he is the fastest horse in the field; indeed he looks one of the finest jump-racing athletes we have seen in years. We are pretty sure that the extra two furlongs should be within his compass. But whatever he does between now and that Prestbury Park showdown, everyone also knows that his jumping cannot be completely trusted; that no bet is safe until he has jumped the last of the Gold Cup’s 22 fences.
No top horse in living memory, not even Moscow Flyer, who got rid of his jockey five times in his 44-race career, has had as deep-grained a jumping flaw as Kauto Star twice showed at Kempton on Boxing Day. For no apparent reason he comes up a stride early and lands on the fence, not over it. At Kempton the birch parted. At Cheltenham last March it didn’t and the favourite for the Queen Mother Champion Chase was rolling on the floor.
So too was Ruby Walsh and one of the most extraordinay elements of the whole Kauto Star dilemma is that he is defying the combined efforts not just of champion trainer Paul Nicholls but of Walsh, the most complete horseman/jockey of them all. His 131 victories and £1.9 million in prize-money across the Islands outpoints even Tony McCoy. On the way he will have crossed some 5,000 obstacles at racing pace. But for Walsh none of this matters if he cannot read Kauto Star.
What will have been particularly galling about Kempton’s mistakes is that Kauto Star reverted to the early take-off, fence-grabbing blunder that turned him over at Cheltenham. At Sandown in November he hit the second last very hard but that was when Walsh had “asked” him for a long stride and the horse had taken another. At Kempton’s fourth last fence, Walsh had him perfectly balanced to jump it off a medium stride and Kauto Star suddenly came up and almost threw himself into the birch. At the final fence, it was even worse; and right in front of me.
Walsh had the race won and instead of risking things by cramming in for a big jump, he tightened the rein to allow him to “pop” over. Instead Kauto Star launched himself up early, landed slap on the fence but somehow scrambled his legs through it as if trying to jump on and off a bank in Ireland.
What do Walsh and Nicholls do now besides keep up their admirable public calm? Kauto Star shows no signs of these characteristics when he is schooled at home. He never did the “early launch” mistake in any of his three earlier races this season and probably won’t in his warm-up for Cheltenham. But Boxing Day told them and us that it was still there. If Walsh was a lesser pilot you would worry for his confidence.
As it is, he will just have to settle with having belief enough for two. He will plan to drop Kauto Star in behind the leaders and try to avoid getting his horse jumping at full stretch the way he let himself down at Kempton. All this is well known by connections of reigning Gold Cup hero War of Attrition, of his Thursday conqueror The Listener and of any other emerging aspirants. They face an awesome champion but they have a chance if they can pile the pressure on. Even three months away, the prospect tingles.