Kauto Star was rarely troubled in his eight-length victory at Kempton
Odds-on favourite Kauto Star showed a welcome return to form with victory in the King George VI Chase at Kempton.
After falling last time out at Haydock, the 10-11 chance was back to his best to claim his third consecutive win in the Boxing Day race.
Ruby Walsh's charge pulled clear of Imperial Commander and Albertas Run with a strong jump at the third-last.
He safely negotiated the last two fences to put him in the frame for another Gold Cup challenge.
The 10-strong field, led by Tamarinbleu and Snoopy Loopy, set a fast early pace but Walsh had the 2007 Gold Cup winner well in contention.
He turned into the straight still on the bridle but Albertas Run loomed up on the outside under Tony McCoy before Walsh urged his mount on and he pulled clear of his rivals.
He's always been a wonderful horse but when you are at the top, people want to knock you
Although his jump at the last was less than fluent, it was still good enough for a 10th Grade One triumph, with Albertas Run holding on for second ahead of Voy Por Ustedes, in his first run over three miles.
The victory sees Kauto Star become only the second horse after Desert Orchid to win the Christmas showpiece three years in succession. He is now around 3-1 second favourite behind defending champion Denman for a second Gold Cup win next March.
After the disappointment of last time, Nicholls was delighted to see his charge back in the winners' enclosure.
"I wish some people would give him the respect he deserves. I'm so pleased for the horse, not anyone else, just him," he said afterwards.
"I wish I hadn't run him last time at Haydock - it was not Sam Thomas' finest hour but we knew we had him back. When he's right, he's a very good horse.
"He definitely won't run before the Gold Cup and I can safely say he will only have the one run next year before the King George."
Earlier, Irish challenger Harchibald (7-1) won a second Christmas Hurdle under a determined ride by Paul Carberry.
The favourite Punjabi suffered a crashing fall at the second last allowing Carberry to move into contention alongside Snap Tie and Richard Johnson.
Despite moving to the front, Carberry still had to work hard on board the mercurial nine-year-old, who was second behind Hardy Eustace in the 2005 Champion Hurdle.
But he held off the challenge of Snap Tie and Blue Bajan to win by three-quarters of a length.
At Wetherby, Nozic jumped the better to beat Tidal Bay and win the Rowland Meyrick Chase.
Tidal Bay, who won this year's Arkle at Cheltenham, was carrying 13lb more than his rival and in his first attempt over three miles never travelled with his usual fluency.
A couple of jumping errors opened the door for the 7-1 shot, ridden by Harry Skelton and he went on to triumph by seven lengths.
King George VI Chase (Kempton)
1. Kauto Star (R Walsh) 10-11 Fav 2. Albertas Run (A P McCoy) 25-1 3. Voy Por Ustedes (R Thornton) 9-2 10 ran. Dist: 8,½
Christmas Hurdle (Kempton)
1. Harchibald (P Carberry) 7-1 2. Snap Tie (R Johnson) 9-2 3. Blue Bajan (G Lee) 17-2 7 ran. Dist: ¾, hd
Rowland Meyrick Chase (Wetherby)
1. Nozic (Harry Skelton) 7-1 2. Tidal Bay (Denis O'Regan) 5-2 Fav 3. Cloudy Lane (J M Maguire) 9-2 8 ran. Dist: 7, 3¾
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