As Imperial Commander romped to victory and finished seven lengths clear of Denman in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, the odds-on favourite Kauto Star looked dejected as he cantered to the finish in last place after a surprise fall four from home.
Having lost out to stablemate and best friend Denman in 2008, this year’s race was once again being billed as the ‘clash of the titans’, and saw Paul Nicholls trained Kauto Star bidding to become only the fifth horse in history to win the prestigious trophy three times.
However, champion jockey Ruby Walsh struggled to find a rhythm and was lucky to stay onboard the favourite after hitting an early fence.
Both horse and jockey looked to have recovered well before nosediving into the Cheltenham turf, leaving Denman to mount the sole challenge on a strengthening, Nigel Twiston-Davies trained Imperial Commander as they turned for home.
The loss may have represented the last chance for Kauto Star to join the likes of Arkle and Best Mate in winning three Gold Cups. But after becoming the first horse ever to regain the coveted trophy in 2009, it might be too early to write off his chances of repeating this extraordinary feat just yet.
If Kauto Star is entered in next year’s race, he will certainly face stiff competition from improving horses in the shape of Imperial Commander, Big Buck’s and this year’s RSA chase winner Weapons Amnesty.
However, despite being realistically wary of an improving field, Kauto Star’s owner, Clive Smith is optimistic that his most decorated horse can once again mount a serious challenge for the title.
He told BBC Sport: “I still think we can come back and give him (Imperial Commander) a very good race, if not beat him.
“He (Kauto Star) is such a performer, he might get close, but Imperial Commander could well improve and it will be tough.”
Kauto Star was 6/1 in the antepost betting to regain the Gold Cup in 2011, and whilst many believe he is capable of springing one last surprise as he approaches his autumn years, it remains to be seen whether the impressive French-bred will be backed to rewrite the history books once again.
Jenny Prest, from the bookmakers William Hill said: “there might be a few punters who think there is a bit of value in it, but at the moment it’s too early to tell whether there will be a lot of money coming for Kauto Star for next year’s Gold Cup.
“things tend to kick off once the jump season starts again in October. Only then will we have a clearer picture of the way the betting might go.”
Despite an astonishing career in national hunt racing, and whilst being far from his last appearances, Kauto Star’s age is leading to concerns that his best chance to join the distinguished quartet of three time Gold Cup winners is now behind him.
The three mile and two and a half furlong trip has not been won by a horse over nine years old since Andrew Thornton came home onboard Cool Dawn to take the crown in 1998.
In fact, only twice in the last 20 years has a horse over the age of nine had enough left in the tank to charge up the famous Cheltenham hill and win racing’s most valuable non-handicap event.
These trends and the fact that next time round, Kauto Star will be pushing 11 years of age, are unlikely to discourage punters from backing him if he shows good form come next season.
Jenny Prest said: “Age doesn’t usually affect the betting very much, and unless it is flagged up by the newspapers nearer the time, then amongst other considerations like the form and the going, there will probably be little attention paid to the horse’s age.
“It tends to be those other factors that have a bearing, rather than the fact the horse will be 11 years old.”
King George chase
Having made history earlier this year by becoming the first horse ever to win the King George four years in a row, Kauto Star is once again likely to head the field in this three mile trip. A race that is widely considered as the precursor to the Gold Cup.
His performance here should give some indication of his chances of making history at Cheltenham next March.
It was widely believed that a horse would never come back to regain a Cheltenham Gold Cup crown, but Kauto Star proved doubters wrong in 2009. It is now clear that next year’s festival is likely to be the last opportunity to add one more record to his already incomparable C.V.
Having unplaced on only five occasions and being the first horse ever to win over two million pounds in prize money over jumps, Kauto Star has already done enough to secure legendary status in the eyes of many.
Whilst he may never formally join the elite club of Arkle, Best Mate, Golden Miller and Cottage Rake that have won the Gold Cup on three or more occasions, Kauto Star is already viewed on a par with these horses.
There is little doubt that, regardless of future results, he will go down in history as one of the greatest steeplechasers of all time.
By Nick Higgins