Paul Nicholls believes there will be little to choose between old rivals Kauto Star and Long Run as the pair prepare to lock horns for a fifth time in next month’s Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Long Run was victorious in both the Gold Cup and the King George VI Chase last season, and it seemed Nicky Henderson’s star stayer had the measure of the legendary Kauto Star, who is five years older.
But the 12-year-old Kauto Star has come back seemingly as good as ever, putting Long Run in his place in the Betfair Chase at Haydock before coming out on top again and securing an historic fifth King George win on St Stephen's Day.
With the scores at two each, the stage is set for another mouthwatering clash at Prestbury Park on March 16.
“If Kauto was four years younger, then he would be favourite, but I suppose people think Long Run will be better suited to Cheltenham and he is the champion after all,” Nicholls said.
“Without a doubt, Kauto is better than last season, and it is difficult to know whether Long Run has improved since last year, so it should bring them closer together.”
Kauto Star is already the first horse in history to regain the Gold Cup crown, and he now bids to repeat the feat and win the race for a third time.
The champion trainers feels the fact that his great rival and stablemate Denman is now retired could be key.
“Not having Denman in the race will also help, as he would harry and pressurise him (Kauto Star) at the top of the hill,” Nicholls continued.
“The quicker they go the better early on, but then it’s just a case of getting a breather in, and Kauto never had that chance with Denman up his backside. Last year, he wasn’t quite finishing, but if we can get him a bit fitter, he should finish better up the hill.”
Nicholls has been thrilled with how his veteran has taken his exertions this year and believes that has been an important factor in why he seems a better horse this season than last.
“He’s cantered pretty much every day since the King George; we haven’t been too hard on him but now’s the time to up a gear. We’ve got five weeks to really tune him up and got some hard graft to do to get his fitness levels up, along with a bit of schooling,” Nicholls told the Racing UK podcast.
“It took him a while to get over his races last year. These two races were like he was when he was at his very best. He was so fresh the next day. He’s a confidence horse and there’s no sign of ageing.
“Going into the King George, we thought Long Run would improve for his first run and thought he was the one to beat.
“But I was astounded at how Kauto had improved and looked before Kempton. I think it’s even stevens between them now.”