STAR SHOWING STAGE FRIGHT

11 February 2007

Whose nerves  are getting worse, his or ours? Gold Cup favourite Kauto Star duly won the Aon Chase at Newbury but only by a neck and only after a last-fence mistake which left both spectators and Ruby Walsh physically shaken.

What’s more, the actual character of the mistake, a sudden attempt to ‘bank’ the birch rather than leap it, was the same flaw which caused such alarm at the last and fourth-last fences at Kempton and indeed which set Kauto Star somersaulting at Cheltenham last March. Somehow he bottles out of the whole jump, grabs at the front of the birch with his forelegs while scrabbling with his backlegs to keep him upright. They did this time. You would not want to bet on the next.

So we have the most talented steeplechaser in the islands ridden by one of the most skilful jockeys to ever send a horse at a fence and yet in each of his last three races Kauto Star has completely let Walsh down. It is enough to drive a trainer to drink but Paul Nicholls kept a sober head afterwards. “It’s frustrating,” he said in understatement, “because he had jumped absolutely brilliant all the way round and then just stepped on the last. But the way he finished, Ruby said he is sure to stay the Gold Cup trip.”

Nicholls is as much a master of the positive as he is of the training profession. But, after long-insisting that there was no problem with Kauto Star’s jumping, he knows in his heart that there is something that can come apart under pressure. As ever there had been no short cuts in the horse’s preparation. Walsh had flown in for an intensive schooling session only on Thursday, the evidence of which showed in some almost show-jumping style leaps during yesterday’s three-mile, 18-fence journey. But then the last.

It is a personal theory that the early reference to ‘nerves’ is not entirely wide of the mark. Kauto Star is a hugely impressive and light-footed galloper, but he does run and actually jump a little on his nerves. It was noticeable as they crossed the last fence on the first circuit. Walsh had him on a long, tight rein but never got near to having to ‘present’ or push him at the fence. A stride off it, Kauto Star just flicked himself to the other side. It was very efficient but the sudden quickness of the leap sent a shiver down the spine.

What happened next time round will be debated all the way to the Gold Cup on March 16. Front-running stablemate Royal Auclair had been unable to fully stretch the field and so coming towards the last Tony McCoy was able to pitch L’Ami for a sprint at the final obstacle. This is always a fraught moment but Kauto Star has run 20 times over obstacles, 10 of them over British fences. Walsh drove him in full pelt. A horse of Kauto Star’s talent should commit himself fully and come up. But he didn’t. His nerve failed him and it was only the fact that he kept his back so low and got his hind legs so quickly underneath him that he did not capsize. Something up there isn’t right.

“He was very keen with me all the way,” said Walsh afterwards in confirmation that the nerves were jangling. “He just wouldn’t settle. He was getting across his fences but he was grabbing very quick at them. I don’t know what he did at the last. But at least he got away with it.”

Yesterday’s drama will mean that all possible contenders will pitch in against him in March. The Listener and Beef Or Salmon are likely to be among them after the latter just nailed Robert Alner’s front-running grey to win the Hennessy Chase at Leopardstown in deep conditions. But possible Cheltenham rivals will have got plenty of food for thougt from Newbury. Kauto Star’s stable companion Denman gave a magnificent display of more orthodox, arched-back jumping when reinforcing his SunAlliance Chase claims and Well Chief came back from a 658-day lay-off to trounce Ashley Brook in the Game Spirit Chase and make himself hot favourite for the Champion Chase.

Well Chief is as thick-set a champion chaser as I have ever seen and the excellence of his condition must surely confine into the ‘too boring to repeat’ tray any remarks about David Pipe no longer needing to be compared to his father Martin. That last remark could perhaps be better directed to the Jamie Moore/Gary Moore jockey and trainer combination who landed the featured £150,000 Totesport Trophy with the 50-1 shot Heathcote the biggest jumping success of either’s career

“Dad’s been in Barbados for six days,” said 22-year-old Jamie, who was champion conditional over jumps at the same time as his brother Ryan was top apprentice on the Flat, “so I’ve been doing the training. This is a dream come true.” At one stage this Moore looked if he would be getting into the big time as part of the Pipe team. But the training operation Gary runs in Brighton now bows its knee to no one whether it be over jumps or on the Flat.

Journeying home there was lots to think about but one set of questions kept returning. Why did Kauto Star do it? How did he get away with it? What will happen next time?

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