Can Kauto Star win fifth King George race at Kempton?
Kauto Star trainer Nicholls targets record win
William Hill King George VI Chase Saturday 15 January, 1500 GMT, Kempton Coverage: Channel 4 TV, BBC Radio 5 live, updates on BBC Sport website
By Frank Keogh
Every sport has its champions, and then there are those who transcend what has been achieved before them.
People like sprinter Usain Bolt or heavyweight boxer Muhammad Ali.
On Saturday, horse racing will have the chance to salute not one, but three of its greats.
The outstanding Kauto Star seeks an unprecedented fifth consecutive win in jump racing's mid-season championship, the rescheduled King George VI Chase at Kempton.
His trainer Paul Nicholls has established himself as a man who plunders big races like few before him.
And the man aboard will be AP McCoy, the first jockey to be voted BBC Sports Personality of the Year and riding Kauto Star in the race for the first time after an injury to regular partner Ruby Walsh.
Every champion has young pretenders on their tail and this is no different.
"Since Kempton Park was redeveloped with an all-weather flat track, as well as the jumps circuit, and we reopened in March 2006, Kauto Star is the only horse to have won the King George," said Kempton clerk of the course Brian 'Barney' Clifford.
"But there are a few willing to take him on this year. Maybe they think he's won four but he may now be vulnerable."
You have to go back to 2004 to find a previous winner of the King George at Kempton before Kauto Star reigned.
Kicking King, trained in Ireland by Tom Taaffe, survived a last-fence scare and avoided a Fathers 4 Justice protester dressed as Santa Claus to win and followed up a year later when the contest was temporarily moved to Sandown.
Four-time King George winner Kauto Star with trainer Paul Nicholls
Taaffe, whose father Pat rode the mighty Arkle and trained Captain Christy to King George triumphs, has told me of his admiration for Somerset-based Nicholls in being able to get his stable star back for this historic fifth attempt.
"Outside the Cheltenham Gold Cup, the King George is the pinnacle. To have any horse able to win a Grade One chase is fantastic, and to have one to win this race is very special," said Taaffe.
"It is extremely hard to keep these horses in one piece, never mind win four years running and be going for a fifth.
"Horses pick up injuries exactly the same as humans, just like athletes and footballers. Keeping an equine beast at the top is very difficult and is a fantastic achievement by Paul Nicholls and his team."
Taaffe's Kicking King, who remains at the trainer's County Kildare stables in retirement, never fully recovered from an injury sustained in his second King George victory.
Might he have been good enough to halt Kauto's Kempton run?
"Certainly Kicking King in the first year he won the King George would have been able to frighten any Kauto Star that day," reflects Taaffe.
Looking to put the frighteners on the reigning King George king on Saturday will be the Nicky Henderson-trained second favourite Long Run, never out of the first three in 16 races, and the winner in 10 of them.
While Kauto has the champ on board, fellow French-bred Long Run has amateur jockey Sam Waley-Cohen in the saddle for his father Robert, the horse's owner.
Detractors claim a professional should ride, but Sam has proved he is that in all but name, including when guiding his mount to a devastating victory in the Feltham Novices' Chase on the same card as the last King George in December 2009.
"I think he would have been the closest finisher to Kauto Star had they been running in the same race," said the bullish owner of Long Run.
"He's come on a lot. He's stronger, better, perkier, happier.
"The French handicapper, for what it's worth, and things have changed a lot since then, rated Long Run 7lb better than Kauto Star at the same age. We all know Kauto Star has improved enormously since then and we hope we have.
"Sam has ridden him in four races, schooled him lots, so he knows the horse extremely well.
"Sam is the only amateur to have won a Grade One chase in the UK in his lifetime. The last person was AJ Wilson in 1981 on Little Owl when he won the Cheltenham Gold Cup. So Sam winning the Feltham was pretty unique - it hadn't been achieved in 28 years."
McCoy is pretty unique, but in his record-breaking career he has not been closely associated with the best steeplechasers of his generation, instead stepping in when the regular partners of Cheltenham Gold Cup winners like Best Mate and Denman have been ruled out.
Those partnerships have provided mixed results. The Northern Irishman was beaten on Best Mate in his first King George before correcting matters a year later, and was unseated the first time he rode Denman.
However, McCoy's experience and determination is invaluable, as demonstrated when he pipped Long Run to second on Burton Port as Weapon's Amnesty won the RSA Chase at Cheltenham in March.
"That's the penalty of having an amateur on board," admitted Robert Waley-Cohen. "In a really tight finish, you are going to be struggling against the likes of AP McCoy, but then he has won over 3,000 races and been champion for 15 years."
McCoy, fresh from completing a full house of Grand National wins with victory on Synchronised in the Welsh National at Chepstow last weekend, is the man of the moment.
On what is being dubbed 'Super Saturday' by Kempton, which hosts a bumper nine-race card, he rides champion hurdler Binocular in the Christmas Hurdle just half an hour or so before the feature race.
In the King George itself, postponed because of snow on its traditional Boxing Day slot, the six-year-old Long Run is not the only potential danger for McCoy and Kauto Star.
Also set to line up are Grade One winners Forpadydeplasterer and Planet of Sound, along with previous King George runners-up Madison du Berlais and Albertas Run.
Kauto Star's young stablemate The Nightingale, reportedly suited by rain-softened ground, has been supported from a pre-Christmas price of 40-1 to around 10-1 now.
Last year's fourth Nacarat and Long Run's stablemate Riverside Theatre, part owned by actor Jimmy Nesbitt, complete the field.
Kauto Star looks certain to go off odds-on favourite and victory would reignite the debate over which racehorse is the all-time greatest.
Arkle beat the likes of triple Grand National hero Red Rum and four-time King George winner Desert Orchid to be voted favourite horse by Racing Post readers in 2004.
On top of three Cheltenham Gold Cups, Arkle defied the handicap system by winning high-class races against rivals who were allocated far less to carry before injury curtailed his career at the age of nine.
"We are most unlikely to see another Arkle," says Taaffe. He stands head and shoulders above them all.
"He gave away two stone or more in winning races like the Hennessy and won the Gold Cup against another champion in Mill House. He was a supreme champion."
We will never know if one was better than the other, but now aged 11, Kauto Star deserves to be hailed a great as he enters the twilight of his career.
"Kauto Star is an exceptional horse. You could say Kempton is really his track, although he has won two Cheltenham Gold Cups," says Taaffe.
"He is a once-in-a-lifetime horse with speed, agility and ability. His style of racing has been so enjoyable to watch."
To put it in perspective, when Kauto Star won his second Gold Cup in 2009, his average speed over more than three-and a-quarter miles and 22 fences was 29.4 miles per hour. Usain Bolt's average speed in his world 100m record was 25.42mph.
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