KAUTO Star, the most successful post-war steeplechaser since Arkle, is a major doubt for the Cheltenham Gold Cup after suffering an “awful” fall on the gallops.
Champion trainer Paul Nicholls said it was “50-50” that racing’s most popular horse would contest a sixth successive Gold Cup two weeks today.
Nicholls only confirmed the seriousness of the fall – regular rider Ruby Walsh was in the saddle last Friday – after his “once in a lifetime horse” failed to respond to treatment.
“Kauto took a tumble when Ruby schooled him at the end of last week. I say tumble, but in truth it was a pretty awful fall,” said the handler, who intends to issue a further update this morning. “Next week is crucial for the horse.”
The trainer’s Cheltenham preparations have already been hit by a coughing virus in his Somerset stable.
And while he stressed that there was still time for the white-faced Kauto Star to recover, he has said the 12-year-old will not appear at Cheltenham unless he is “110 per cent” fit.
His withdrawal would be a major blow to the whole National Hunt Festival after Kauto Star rolled back the years earlier this season to beat Long Run, the reigning champion, in both Haydock’s Betfair Chase and then Kempton’s King George Chase on Boxing Day which this iconic chaser was winning for a record fifth time.
If he was to prevail on March 16, Kauto Star would be the first horse to regain the Gold Cup twice – his spectacular wins in 2007 and 2009 were sandwiched by stablemate Denman’s triumph.
Ironically Kauto Star’s jumping has been a revelation this season – his wins at Haydock and Kempton were, arguably, career-best performances following a potentially career-ending fall in the 2010 Gold Cup.
“We were schooling last Friday morning, as he has done every year before the Gold Cup, but unfortunately he missed one of the last fences we were going to jump and he fell quite heavily,” said Walsh.
“He’s done it a few times on the track but never at home, he’s probably been round that school a thousand times.
“If I knew why he’d done it you’d prevent them all falling. It’s part of racing. It’s not great timing but it happened.
“I’ve seen horses bounce back from this and win the next day. If he’s right he’ll run and if he’s not he won’t.”
As for Nicholls and owner Clive Smith, they chose to speak out after becoming increasingly concerned by the horse’s slow recovery.
“He is still cantering each day but I can assure you right now that Kauto Star won’t be going anywhere near Cheltenham unless we are all convinced that he is 110 per cent right,” explained Nicholls.
“Even if there is the slightest doubt in our minds, then he stays at home, no question. We will do what is best for the horse. Always have, always will. End of story.
“But, along with Desert Orchid, I suppose if ever a horse has captured the public’s love and imagination it is Kauto Star. We saw that when he won the Betfair Chase at Haydock. It even had this old cynic bursting with pride for the horse, fighting back the tears on my proudest and most emotional day as a trainer.
“It will be devastating if Kauto Star wasn’t able up to line because he has been in the form of his life this season.
“But one thing I think we have all learned with Kauto is never to write him off.
“Yes, having this setback so close to the Festival is clearly a major concern, but don’t confuse Kauto’s kind and inquisitive nature with softness.
“He is a hard so-and-so too – you learn to be when your best mate is Denman – and it wouldn’t surprise me in the slightest if he was back firing on all cylinders at home before Cheltenham, and went on to beat Long Run for a third time this season. But at this stage his participation does hang in the balance.”
The injury setback also has repercussions for David Pipe, a West Country rival to Nicholls, and his brilliant novice chaser Grands Crus. Connections continue to eye an audacious tilt at the Gold Cup – the grey is unbeaten in three starts over fences – rather than the RSA Chase, the three mile championship for novice chasers.
Like Kauto Star, Grands Crus last raced at Kempton on Boxing Day when he won the Grade One Feltham Novices Chase under Tom Scudamore.
The current favourite for the Gold Cup is Long Run – while Jonjo O’Neill has issued an upbeat bulletin on the prospects of Synchronised, the mount of AP McCoy.
Another contender could be Weird Al, the winner of Wetherby’s Charlie Hall Chase.
Given the frailties in the armoury of his opponents, Kauto Star at his best has the scope to beat his younger rivals to win a third Gold Cup. First, however, the horse will have to convince the aforementioned Smith of his well-being.
“It would be tragic if he wasn’t at his best and had a fall. He’s got to be right. His life is more important than trying to win the Gold Cup, so we’ve just got to see how he is,” said a very pessimistic-sounding owner. “He’s got to make massive improvement, but there’s still a chance. He’s still very sore and Buffy Shirley-Beavan (vet) is looking where he’s got a very sore bruise.”