There was a changing of the guard in the staying chase division last season, with Long Run taking Kauto Star’s King George crown before becoming the first six-year-old in almost 50 years to lift the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
The pair lock horns for the third time in today’s Betfair Chase at Haydock and connections of the reigning champion have issued an ominous warning to any pretenders to his throne, clearly expecting the young French import to get better with age this campaign.
Owner Robert Waley-Cohen said: “He’s certainly physically matured a lot since the public last saw him in March.
“His physical progression between then and now is impressive. Now he’s a really handsome, strong horse.
“Last year we were the young horse trying to prove we were up for it and this year everyone will be trying to knock our crown off.
“The horse is in very good shape and we just have to hope he’s improved as much as I think he has, and that he’s fit enough to do himself justice.
“The only thing that I think will beat him is if when we get to the sharp end of the race and he’s not as fully wound up as he will be by the time we get to Kempton and Cheltenham later in the season.”
Kauto Star ranks among the very best chasers of all time, with two Gold Cups, four King Georges and three Betfair Chases included on a glittering CV, but while Waley-Cohen is deeply respectful of the 11-year-old’s achievements, he believes age may have finally caught up with him.
He said: “Kauto Star is the benchmark for the present generation, and indeed for many generations – he is the icon.
“He’s won 14 Grade One races in all, 21 races in total, and that is very, very impressive.
“That is the benchmark we all have to aspire to, but he is getting older and the handicapper marks him down considerably below his peak.
“There are certainly races to be won with him, but whether he can compete at this level, we’ll find out this weekend.
“I’m sure Paul Nicholls has done everything he can to make sure the horse does himself justice, but on the book he has a big gap to make up with Long Run.”
Nicholls has resisted calls from many quarters to call time on Kauto Star’s career, citing his excellent third in the Gold Cup, rather than his subsequent flop in Ireland, as evidence of his superstar’s relentless zest for racing.
Confidence is building behind his challenge on Merseyside, with the champion trainer aiming to have him at his peak at the first time of asking.
Nicholls said: “He looks amazing and he’s not been having an easy time of it at home because we worked him with Master Minded, Big Buck’s and Hinterland one day last week, so we’re keeping him up to it, just to see how he is.
“The spark seems to be there, he looks amazing and he does always go well fresh so we’re looking forward to it.
“We’ll know a lot more after Saturday. If you go back to last year, if he runs anything like he did in the Gold Cup, he’d have a very big chance.”
Owner Clive Smith also has his other big name in action with Master Minded tackling the Amlin 1965 Chase at Ascot, but will instead be in attendance on Merseyside.
He said: “We’re very pleased with Kauto. He seems to have come on very well following his time in the paddocks during the summer.
“He’s trained very well and he’s full of beans at the moment, so we’re looking forward to it.
“We’re aware that he’s getting on now and if there is any sign of him not being at his best, we’ll just retire him.
“But at the moment he looks pretty good and we’ll just take it day by day. If he does pretty well on Saturday, we’ll have a rethink.
“He’s won this race three times before so we know the track suits and he should be right there.”
This is far from a two-horse race, though, with a clutch of young pretenders aiming to bridge the gap into chasing’s top echelon.
Heading them is Diamond Harry, who has been off since winning last year’s Hennessy and was a late withdrawal from the Charlie Hall fought out by Haydock opponents Weird Al and Time For Rupert at Wetherby.
He will be partnered for the first time by Nick Williams’s new stable jockey James Reveley, who said: “We can’t expect to beat Long Run, but hopefully he’ll put up a good show and give him a run for his money. They’ll go a nice gallop so hopefully he’ll travel well into it and be there at the end. He’s very fit. He was fit enough to run in the Charlie Hall and Nick has kept him ticking over. He’s 100 per cent and I’m biting the bit to ride him.”
David Moyes got his weekend off to a winning start as Desert Cry won the Alvin Morris ‘Million in March’ Polyflor Sales Handicap Hurdle at Haydock.
Everton manager Moyes, whose team return to Premier League action today at home to Wolves, was not in attendance to see the horse he owns in partnership carry Grand National-winning jockey Jason Maguire to his 51st victory of the season.