Having seen one former champion in Master Minded trail home a well-beaten eighth this week, Clive Smith is relying on his old favourite Kauto Star to propel him back into the limelight in the totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup.
It now seems an age ago that Smith, along with trainer Paul Nicholls and jockey Ruby Walsh, had a complete stranglehold on all the major National Hunt prizes with the two French imports – but time waits for no horse.
On his incredible C.V. Kauto Star has won 21 of his 36 races including four King Georges, two Gold Cups, two Tingle Creeks and three Betfair Chases.
He created history in becoming the first horse to reclaim the biggest prize in steeplechasing in 2009, but he fell when beaten 12 months ago and even lost his aura of invincibility at his favourite Kempton when the young buck Long Run beat him in January.
With last year’s winner Imperial Commander, 2008 hero Denman and Nicky Henderson’s Long Run in the race, Smith is well aware of the task at hand.
“It’s very strong,” said Smith.
“There’s Imperial Commander there and, according to Nigel Twiston-Davies, he’s in very good shape. He goes well fresh and loves Cheltenham so we have got some big opposition there and, of course, we all know how good Long Run is and Denman is there again.
“I was speaking to his (Denman’s) owner Paul Barber down at Paul Nicholls’ yard and he says his horse is in very good order as well.
“The Robert Waley-Cohen and Nicky Henderson team got Long Run right for the King George and I think he could be a very serious horse.
“Long Run is still a very young horse and it would be exceptional for a six-year-old to win, but he could do it. He’s a very good horse and he was rated higher, I believe, than Kauto in France so he is a serious opponent.”
Tony McCoy was on Kauto Star at Kempton and while Smith attaches no blame to him for the defeat, he is hoping his old ally Walsh sparks him back to life.
“Kempton wasn’t going to be his day. He had it all to do and Tony (McCoy) had an impossible target,” added Smith.
“He has a different style of riding to Ruby and perhaps Kauto wasn’t quite right that day. He picked up some mucus and a bit of blood after that, but he has blossomed since.
“It’s a very open Gold Cup this year.”
Walsh, who despite being out of action for nearly five months prior to the Festival rode a first day treble, is eagerly anticipating partnering his old friend again.
“He felt great when I schooled him,” he told Racing UK.
“He’s maybe not as quick as he used to be, but he’s not seven anymore, he’s 11, but he’s in great form. He travelled really well and picked up when I asked and I couldn’t pull him up.
“But I always think champions are hard to beat and Imperial Commander will be. Long Run was terribly impressive in the King George, but I just wonder if he’s vulnerable on good ground – I’m hoping he is!
“We know Kauto was under the weather in the King George and he had to go on antibiotics after it, and we also know that he acts around Cheltenham and that is what we are clinging to in the hope of beating Long Run.
“People can say he has been beaten there three times but the fact of the matter is he has won two Gold Cups. I love riding him.
“You’ll be guaranteed a good gallop with Midnight Chase and Neptune Collonges, I think it will be a good test and most of them like to be close to the pace with the exception of Kempes. Usually, with a good test, the best horse wins.”
Despite his advancing years, the thought of retiring Kauto Star has never entered Nicholls’ head.
“He really thrives on what he’s doing and there’s no way you’d retire him,” Nicholls said.
“The three-week gap to the King George didn’t help him. He had a little bleed afterwards, we had a blood test done which showed he wasn’t quite right and he had a course of antibiotics for a week.
“I think the mistake he made at the last in the King George got to the bottom of him which is why he may well have bled. Before that he’d won a Grade One at Down Royal on his first run back since he had that heavy fall.
“Drying ground would help Kauto. I’ve no doubt Long Run is the best on ability, but the track and ground are totally different to the King George.”
Nicholls does not just have Kauto Star in the mix, however.
As well as fellow Festival stalwart Denman he will also saddle What A Friend and Neptune Collonges.
“This is the sixth Festival on the trot that Denman has been to which is an incredible performance on its own, and this is his fourth Gold Cup,” said Nicholls.
“He’s tough, he’s hard but he’s not any quicker these days, he’s an 11-year-old and has had a few hard races, but his enthusiasm is still there.
“He has done nothing wrong, he had a great run in the Hennessy and has definitely improved a little bit for a breathing operation.
“I didn’t think we were going to get anywhere by running him in the Aon (before Cheltenham) like we did last year. That was a disaster, but he’s done a lot of work and we keep him fresh.
“The better ground will suit What A Friend enormously. I’m doing a See More Business on him and putting a pair of blinkers on him.”
Owner John Hales has already seen his colours carried to victory this week with Al Ferof and he would have preferred to see the ground come up soft for Neptune Collonges.
“I don’t think realistically he can win the Gold cup, but I would have loved to see it come up a mudbath because we’d like to see how close he could get,” said Hales.
“He came very close in 2008 when we almost beat Kauto star on the line and were beaten six lengths by Denman. That was a brilliant performance.
“The year after he came fourth, but we now know he picked up a tendon injury in the race and how much that affected him I don’t know. I think he can run into a place.”
There is no doubt that if Long Run can reproduce his King George form that would make him the one to beat.
However, in two runs at Cheltenham so far the six-year-old has failed to produce his best and Henderson has the utmost respect for the old guard.
“I still think Kauto Star is the horse I respect the most in the race and have no doubt in this year’s King George we didn’t see the same Kauto as we did before,” said Henderson.
“Long Run might be very, very good, but we were also second at Kempton with Riverside Theatre and I’m not sure that can all be correct. If he comes back as we all like to know him, he’s still the one to beat
“We’re the youngster, the pretender and he’s only six. But I couldn’t honestly say that he’ll be much better at seven because as with a lot of these French horses, at this age their precocity is enormous.
“He looks fantastic, everything has gone well. Yes, he might improve next year but I suspect if he’s going to do it, it might be this year.
“We never planned to run him again since Kempton and we’ve got to take on the really big boys.
“But I have to tell you Mill House (1963) was the last six-year-old to win the Gold Cup.”
He will be ridden by his owner’s son, amateur jockey Sam Waley-Cohen, but that did not stop him winning the King George.
“As it gets closer and closer it becomes more and more real, but the last couple of months have been pretty relaxed,” said Waley-Cohen.
“You can’t do more than be judged by your actions and it was great that the horse ran so well at Kempton and it all came together.
“It’s an accusation (his alleged inability to handle Cheltenham) that’s very easy to make and one you’ve got to answer.
“Going into the RSA last season there were some niggling doubts about whether he was in the best form – maybe he wasn’t as sparky as we wanted. I don’t have any concerns about the course.
"Good racehorses are not just about being able to put one leg in front of the other and go fast. It’s also about desire and heart and courage. That’s one of his great talents but it also makes him a challenge to ride.“
Last year's renewal was built up as a shootout between Kauto Star and Denman and history will show that Imperial Commander spoiled the party.
Nigel Twiston-Davies’ 10-year-old is a stereotypical Cheltenham specialist, with six of his eight career wins coming at the home of National Hunt racing.
Connections made no secret of the fact they were slightly miffed about being the forgotten horse last year – but he heads into this year’s renewal as the favourite.
He has held that position ever since his win 12 months ago, although he has only run twice since.
Having fallen at Aintree he showed that his engine still remained in full working order when winning the Betfair Chase at Haydock on his only start of the season.
“Everything has been 100% with him for the last few weeks,” said Twiston-Davies.
“We’ve had a gallop at Warwick and then we took him to Kempton where he went well.
“There’s a bit of rain forecast depending on who you listen to, but I don’t think it really matters at all to him.
“He won on good ground last year, but he’s won on soft plenty of times.
“There’s a lot of talk about the old and new guard, but they’ve all got him to beat.”
After a stellar week, the Irish will be hoping they can take home the blue riband event and they have their strongest challenge for a while.
Willie Mullins sends over Kempes, winner of the Irish Hennessy on his last start when ridden by David Casey.
“Everything has gone right, he ran a cracker in the Lexus – Tony (McCoy) told me he still hadn’t gone for him when he fell at the second-last, and he franked that form in the Hennessy,” said Mullins.
“David rode him there and got him jumping fantastically and in a great rhythm. He popped the last and won well.
“The ground drying will suit him and if he can get into a jumping rhythm early on and have a clear round, who knows what will happen.”
McCoy is looking forward to getting back on board.
“He was pretty good when I won on him in Punchestown last year and maybe it wasn’t a strong renewal of the Hennessy but he won quite well,” he said.
“He’s got plenty to find with the likes of Imperial Commander and Long Run, but it is the Gold Cup and you never know what can happen.
“Imperial Commander has had a quiet season but he has the form from last year. It’s very hard to win back-to-back Gold Cups.
“Long Run was very impressive in the King George and obviously Kauto Star and Denman are getting a bit older, but they are pretty good yardsticks and they’ll make sure what ever beats them has a tough race.”
China Rock’s price has contracted in recent days and Mouse Morris, already on the board after First Lieutenant’s win in the Neptune, is hoping he will be at home on the ground.
“He has been fourth on his two previous appearances at Cheltenham, so we know that he acts round the track. He will be two stone better on a faster surface and realistically I am hoping that he can be placed,” said Morris.
One Irish contender who will be hoping the forecast rain materialises is Noel Meade’s Pandorama, who has only tasted defeat once over fences when pulled up in the Hennessy at Newbury.
“I can’t understand why everyone is knocking the horse so much,” his owner Robert Bagnall told At The Races.
“Everything went wrong for him in the Hennessy. The start was wrong and he was nearly brought down and Paul (Carberry) decided to pull him up.
“Noel thought he’d win the Hennessy and he is not someone who is always confident. I just think we’ve been totally underestimated.
“I remember when he won his first bumper in Fairyhouse, it wasn’t pure mud.
“Obviously he would prefer the ground if it rains on Thursday, but the ground isn’t going to dry out too much now.
“The hill will suit him. The Irish horses and the English horses haven’t competed against each other before so it is hard to say.
“I just have the feeling that Pandorama is every bit as good as Imperial Commander and Kauto Star and Denman as well, but maybe I’m biased.”