Trainer Paul Nicholls has been “astounded” by the achievements of Kauto Star this season as the legend of the turf prepares to run in an incredible sixth Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup.
The 12-year-old has been taken to the hearts of the National Hunt fraternity like no other since Desert Orchid, and is set for a mouthwatering rematch tomorrow with last year’s Gold Cup winner Long Run.
Having looked on the verge of retirement when pulling up at Punchestown last May, Nicholls has coaxed Kauto Star back to his brilliant best this term by plundering a fourth Betfair Chase and a record-breaking fifth King George.
Long Run was left trailing in his wake on both occasions.
And after having recovered from a schooling fall two weeks ago, Nicholls is now delighted with the veteran chaser, who became the first horse to reclaim the Gold Cup in 2009.
“Kauto has astounded us this year and he now seems in really good form,” said the Ditcheat handler.
“He ran really well at Haydock, when Long Run came to him and he completely outstayed him, and his performance at Kempton in the King George was incredible.
“It’s a different track at Cheltenham, but if he runs to the form of Kempton and Haydock then he has a massive chance.
“His record speaks for itself and it would be awesome for everyone involved if he could win another Gold Cup.
“If he wins, then great, but if not, he’s 12 and he has been the most fantastic horse to train.”
Jockey Ruby Walsh has been amazed by Kauto Star’s recovery since his schooling fall, but is aware Long Run is “a very strong stayer”.
Walsh said: “He seems very well again and they’ve done a great job with him.
“He’s beaten Long Run twice this season but Long Run is a very strong stayer.
“We’ve seen what form Nicky Henderson’s horses are in this week so he’s going to be very hard to beat.”
Nicholls also runs What A Friend, part-owned by Sir Alex Ferguson, who finished fourth last year.
“What A Friend is a big each-way price and could finish third or fourth,” added Nicholls.
Despite being the defending champion, Long Run will be viewed as the party pooper if he defeats Kauto Star.
But with Henderson’s yard in red-hot form, confidence in the camp is high he can retain his crown.
“The score is 2-2 and this is the decider, so let’s hope it’s a great race,” said Henderson.
“He is seriously well and everything has gone great.
“We’re happy where we are and Paul Nicholls is happy where he is, and I’d have been genuinely sad if Kauto Star came there and wasn’t at his best.
“Kauto Star thumped us two times so we’ve got to get back and beat him.
“National Hunt racing wants this to happen.
“There are lots of great races in the week, but I hope this is the highlight.”
The Seven Barrows handler also has a second string in Burton Port, who chased home Long Run at Newbury recently.
Henderson added: “Long Run was giving 10b to Burton Port at Newbury and was idling on the run-in.
“We had been really happy with Burton Port going into Newbury and he was a good second after being off a long time.
“I didn’t want him to have a very hard race so we could get him to Cheltenham.”
Robert Waley-Cohen owns Long Run and is also chairman of Cheltenham racecourse.
As if that is not enough pressure, the seven-year-old gelding will be ridden by his son, Sam.
“Newbury was a wonderful, confidence-giving race,” said Waley-Cohen snr.
“It was a high-class field and we were giving weight to the ones that looked likely to finish closest to us.
“He beat them all, broke the track record off 11st 10lb on good to soft ground, and jumped immaculately.
“The Gold Cup is the holy grail and it’s what we want to win.”
In-form jockey Barry Geraghty rides Burton Port, but expects to have it all to do against his stablemate.
“I think the track will suit him, although it will also suit Long Run a whole lot better,” said Geraghty.
“We were trying to get him into the race without giving him a hard race (at Newbury).
“He ran on from the last and I asked for every effort, but I didn’t give him a hard race.
“Long Run was only doing what he had to do in front, but it was a good run.
“In the Gold Cup we’ll know where we stand and know then if he’s well handicapped for the Grand National.”