Donn's Articles » In anticipation of the National Hunt season

In anticipation of the National Hunt season

You know that the National Hunt campaign is about to engage overdrive when the holiday brochures change from sun to snow, the season stretching out before you like an untouched illuminated runway that will take you to God knows where.

Ask any racing fan what is the best time of the National Hunt season, and he will probably tell you that it is the Cheltenham Festival, or Gold Cup day, some might say the Punchestown Festival, or Leopardstown at Christmas, or Grand National day. In one sense, however, it is now, when we can wollow in the anticipation, anything is possible, every horse a potential champion, and look forward to the return to the racetrack of past and potential heroes, the few who will deliver on our expectations and the many who will fall gloriously short.

Enter Kauto Star and Denman, perennial slaves to expectation. It is difficult to under-estimate the contribution that the Ditcheat Duo have made to National Hunt racing since they arrived on the scene, one out of a hurdle race in France, the other out of a Liscarroll point-to-point. They have been the story now for years. Between them they have won 35 races, 26 chases and eight hurdle races, 17 at the highest level including four King Georges (Kauto Star), two Hennessys (Denman) and three Gold Cups (combined). When Kauto Star won the Gold Cup in 2007, Denman was busy winning the RSA Chase, when Denman won it in 2008, Kauto Star finished second, and when Kauto won it back in 2009, Denman chased him home.

The fact that upstart Imperial Commander gate-crashed their private duel (supporters’ scarves and roadshows and everything) that was the 2010 Cheltenham Gold Cup did little to dim the magnitude of their stars. There were excuses: Denman had gone into the race on the back of a far from ideal preparation and probably did remarkably well to finish second; Kauto made a terrible mistake at the eighth fence, from which he did well to recover, and crashed out at the fourth last when his goose was far from cooked. Also, Imperial Commander is a bloody good horse, a worth adversary, a Gold Cup winner of renown worthy now of his own scarf.

While it is important to appreciate what has gone before, to stop and acclaim past champions, consider the importance of the history that has been created, the nature of this game dictates that it is as much about looking forward as it is about looking back, or at least looking back in order that we can look forward. Expectations of last year’s heroes are high. Kauto Star, Imperial Commander and Denman occupy the top three places in the betting for the Gold Cup. Respective best prices of 5/1, 5/1 and 12/1 suggest that the probability of one of them winning the Gold Cup next March is over 40%. History suggests otherwise.

Kauto Star and Denman will both be 11 years old by the time the Gold Cup rolls around. No horse aged older than 10 has won the Gold Cup since the Ryan Price-trained What A Myth did so under Paul Kelleway in 1969. Forty-two years is a lot of water under the bridge. Even Imperial Commander will be right up against history at the age of 10, with no 10-year-old proving successful since Cool Dawn’s victory for Robert Alner and Andy Thornton in 1998.

In the 11 renewals since 1998, 54 horses aged 10 or older have tried, and all 54 have failed. Admittedly, there were a couple of questionable attempts in there, a couple of 200/1 shots who could have gained more suitable employment at Hexham or Fakenham on Gold Cup day than at Cheltenham, but 23 of them were priced at 20/1 or lower, including ten at 10/1 or lower and four outright favourites, and every one of them came up short.

You can easily argue that these three are not ordinary steeplechasers, that they don’t conform to the norms that govern older horses in the Gold Cup, but the fact remains that the Gold Cup is a young man’s game these days. Four of the last nine winners were seven, seven of the last 10 were eight or younger, and it is not going to be easy for the established brigade.

In the meantime, there is the small matter of the King George, and Kauto Star’s attempt to win his fifth. The Paul Nicholls-trained gelding created history when he won it last year under Ruby Walsh, becoming the first horse in history to win the race four times in a row. Desert Orchid did win it four times, but not in a row.

The stats say that age shouldn’t count against Kauto in the King George as much as it should in the Gold Cup. It is true that only one horse aged 10 or older has won the King George since 1990, but not as many older horses have tried. In the last 10 years, 21 horses aged 10 or older have run in the King George, and won of them won, Edredon Bleu, who actually led home an elder statesman’s 1-2-3 in 2003.

Also, the Kempton specialists, the King George experts, have proven their longevity. Wayward Lad won his third King George as a 10-year-old in 1985, Desert Orchid himself won his third as a 10-year-old in 1989, then won it again as an 11-year-old in 1990.

It is significant that, according to Racing Post Ratings, Kauto Star put up the best performance of his 34-race career when he won the race last year. Indeed, the rating of 192 that he earned that day was the highest rating ever awarded to any horse in the history of Racing Post Ratings. He is a dual Gold Cup winner but, more than anything, he is a King George horse, and it will take a huge effort to de-throne him this year.

That said, the challengers are lining up. Imperial Commander is girding his loins for another King George attempt. Also, Henry de Bromhead may allow Sizing Europe have a crack at Kauto in the JN Wine Champion Chase at Down Royal in two weeks time as a possible stepping stone to Kempton, while the King George is the obvious target for youngster Long Run, half Kauto Star’s age, winner of the Feltham Chase over the King George course and distance last year.

Chocks away, destination anywhere.

© The Sunday Times, 24th October 2010