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Christmas review

There was a point, about half way between the fifth last and the fourth last fences in Monday’s King George VI Chase at Kempton Park, that you knew you were about to be party to a little piece of racing history.

At the sixth last fence, Ruby Walsh had squeezed, and Kauto Star had picked up. At the fifth last, Walsh had squeezed again and Kauto had pinged. Foot-perfect. Then, as the fourth last obstacle approached, Walsh eased his foot onto the accelerator and looked between his legs. Long Run came under pressure and Somersby floundered, yet Kauto still coasted in the rider’s hands. Then you knew.

Walsh and Kauto had been there before. Four times before last Monday, they had wheeled into Kempton’s home straight with just three fences between them and the King George trophy. There were no final-fence dramatics this time, no giving their rivals a chance, no giving their supporters heart attacks. This time, they just flowed up the home straight and into the history books.

And this one was different to all the others. Not only was this Kauto Star’s unprecedented fifth, it was also the first time that Kauto entered the King George fray as an underdog. In the four that he won and the one that he lost, he was an odds-on shot; he was expected. This time, not even the weight of public money seeking to buy into a piece of history could enable him replace Long Run as the bookmakers’ favourite.

If it is a popularity cocktail you are trying to create, then you couldn’t have bettered a returning hero, a veteran, a champion, coming back as an underdog to seek a piece of history. Unusually, the plot followed the script, and the crowd lapped it up.

If you are not old enough to have been a part of the Arkle story, it is difficult to argue that Kauto Star is not the best steeplechaser that you have ever seen. Two Tingle Creeks, two Gold Cups, and now five King Georges; 16 Grade 1 races in total over all distances on all types of ground on all types of track.

He has turned 12 today, and no 12-year-old has won the Cheltenham Gold Cup in over 40 years. However, that race is his target now, and we know that Kauto Star does not conform to statistics. With this unique racehorse, anything is possible.

All going well between now and March, Kauto will have to beat Long Run again in the Gold Cup, but he may also have to beat Grands Crus. The David Pipe-trained gelding – the only horse who could even get close to Big Buck’s over hurdles last season – put up the most impressive performance of his unbeaten three-race chasing career when he beat Silviniaco Conti and Bobs Worth in the Feltham Chase over the King George course and distance 70 minutes beforehand.

Grands Crus loves Cheltenham, he jumps fences well, he stays, he is hugely progressive, and it was interesting that David Pipe said after Monday’s race that he would give him an entry in the Gold Cup. Signifiantly, the time that he clocked in winning the Feltham was almost three seconds faster than the time that Kauto Star clocked in winning the King George and, if he did go down the Gold Cup route, he would be a real player.

If we learned last week that Grands Crus was probably the best staying novice chaser in Britain, then we also learned that Last Instalment was probably the best staying novice chaser in Ireland. Like Grands Crus, the Philip Fenton-trained gelding is now three for three over fences, and, continuing the parallel, he put up the most impressive performance of his life in winning the Grade 1 championship race for staying novice chasers at Leopardstown’s Christmas Festival, the Topaz Fort Leney Chase.

His jumping impressed. His jumping had impressed before, but never on ground this good. The fact that he was happy to have a cut at his fences on ground that was officially described as good, good to yielding in places, augurs well for a possible tilt at the RSA Chase at Cheltenham in March, a race that his owner won with Weapon’s Amnesty in 2010. Indeed, the Gigginstown House horse may even have improved for the better ground, it may have accentuated the positive that is his fluency over a fence, and that can only be a good thing.

Big Zeb confirmed what we suspected from his seasonal debut – that he is not yet ready to trade his racing shoes for a pair of slippers and a pipe just yet – when he once again got the better of Noble Prince to land the Paddy Power Dial-A-Bet Chase. Colm Murphy’s gelding is remarkably consistent, only once has he been out of the first two in 13 races – all but one of them at Grade 1 or Grade 2 level – since March 2009. The 2010 Champion Chase winner, he had to give best to compatriot Sizing Europe in the race last year, and it is not going to be easy for him as an 11-year-old to regain his crown this season, but he seems to be in the form of his life.

At Kempton, Nicky Henderson and Barry Geraghty made hay. Finian’s Rainbow’s out-of-the-fire performance to land the Desert Orchid Chase on his seasonal debut was enought to make him a Champion Chase player, while Sprinter Sacre’s defeat of Peddlers Cross in the Wayward Lad Chase saw him snatch the Arkle favourite’s armband from Donald McCain’s horse.

At Leopardstown, the Dermot Weld-trained Unaccompanied hauled herself into the Champion Hurdle picture by beating Thousand Stars and Oscars Well in the Istabraq Hurdle, while the Willie Mullins-trained Make Your Mark and Shark Hanlon’s Hidden Cyclone made impressive winning debuts over hurdles and fences respetively, with the promise of much more to come.

Same as the rest of the season then.

© The Sunday Times, 1st January 2012