Kauto Star was made work hard for his Haydock victory
Double Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Kauto Star earned his third Betfair Chase win at Haydock after a thrilling photo-finish win over Imperial Commander.
The winner, ridden by Ruby Walsh looked to have made a decisive move two fences from home on his seasonal comeback.
The Nigel Twiston-Davies trained Imperial Commander and jockey Paddy Brennan dug deep and threw down the gauntlet to Kauto on the run-in.
But as the pair dived for the line, Kauto got up to win by a nose.
After Madison du Berlais faded out of contention on the back straight, it was left to Imperial Commander, on his first run over three miles, and Kauto Star to battle it out in the testing conditions.
But the odds-on favourite dug deep to follow up his 2006 and 2007 victories and put him on course for another Cheltenham Gold Cup challenge.
"He really needed that run," said his delighted trainer Paul Nicholls. "I thought he might get tired on the run-in but he just keeps finding more."
"This is the first of our three targets for the season - the King George VI Stakes at Kempton on Boxing Day and Cheltenham but I didn't want him to go to Kempton without a run."
Walsh added: "He's always digs this horse - he's an incredible horse. He feels as good as last year.
"I did think we were beaten and the second is an improving horse. He just got tired going to the last and then he has dug deep to hang on.
"My tactical decision was to test Imperial Commander's stamina and it has just paid off.
"The ground probably took it out of him a bit. I know he is a better horse on better ground, but I had been saying to Paul all week that good horses win on any ground.
"That is his 12th Grade One victory and people were still knocking him last week. It is a bit like Manchester United - if you are at the top they want to knock you.
"This is as good a horse as we have ever seen and we should all appreciate him."
Betfair Chase (Haydock) 1. Kauto Star (R Walsh) 4-6 Fav 2. Imperial Commander (P J Brennan) 9-1 3. Madison Du Berlais (T Scudamore) 6-1 7 ran. Dist: nose, 24