Long Run was ridden by amateur jocky Sam Waley-Cohen, son of owner Robert
By Frank Keogh
BBC Sport at Kempton Park
It was supposed to be a coronation, but a young pretender with royal connections took the crown.
And it proved to be an old-fashioned kind of sporting triumph, where an amateur with a hugely poignant back story beat the professionals at their own game.
Thousands gathered at Kempton Park to salute the brilliant racehorse Kauto Star as he sought to secure a historic fifth King George VI Chase victory.
Yet the three-week delay because of snow to jump racing's mid-season championship almost served to highlight that the dual Cheltenham Gold Cup winner was in the twilight of his career.
While his actual birthday is not until March, all horses age a year for administration purposes on New Year's Day, and the 11-year-old was undone by a rival almost half his years.
Long Run, trained by Nicky Henderson, did what Kauto had done for the previous four years, and left his rivals trailing. He won by 12 lengths from stablemate Riverside Theatre with the four-time winner another seven lengths adrift in third.
You don't allow yourself to dream about moments like this because they are too few and far between
It was perfect vindication for owner Robert Waley-Cohen, who had staunchly defended his decision to put his son Sam on the horse.
Sam is an amateur, you see. Maybe in name only but he prefers to run his dental business than ride horses every day for a living.
Robert had insisted his son knew the horse best and it was an irony that Sam prevailed as the 15-time champion Tony McCoy came unstuck riding Kauto Star in a race for the first time in the absence of his injured regular partner Ruby Walsh.
"Lots of people have opinions and I try to listen to the ones that I value and not listen to the ones that don't," said Sam, 28.
"Sometimes the criticisms are fair but I'm really pleased we pulled it together as a team."
When I have bumped into Sam at courses ranging from Aintree to Epsom over the last year, the talk has often turned to Long Run and the high regard in which he is held.
He was beaten twice into third at Cheltenham in 2010, but the faith has never been lost in a horse who has now won 11 of his 17 races and been placed in the other six.
His handsome, eloquent jockey is a friend of royal bride-to-be Kate Middleton and is himself engaged to be married this year.
Sam has a touch of the daredevil. He flies helicopters, boxes, rides motorbikes and carries the air of a dashing gentleman untroubled by life's frailties.
But he has been, albeit privately, to the depths of despair.
Sam's younger brother Thomas died of cancer aged 20, and his family has tirelessly raised more than £1m for a ward in his memory at Oxford Children's Hospital.
In fact, you may remember in 2008 Kate slipping over in a day-glo outfit which included yellow hotpants and pink leg warmers at a fund-raising roller disco organised by Sam, who went to prep school with her fiancée Prince William.
Long Run is a half-brother to Liberthine, who defied odds of 25-1 to win at the 2005 Cheltenham Festival under Sam eight months after the death of Thomas.
"It was the first good thing that had happened to us for a long time," Sam has said.
"It was so unexpected, it brought the whole family out of a dark and low place. It was the beginning of the love affair, so when we saw Long Run and knew he was a half-brother to Liberthine it all just fitted."
You can see why the Waley-Cohens love the French-bred Long Run, and why this King George triumph meant so much to them.
"For every stride this horse takes on a course there are hundreds of man hours put into him," said the rider.
"This is the end of one long journey and maybe the start of an even longer journey for him.
"He was phenomenal. He's done it fantastically and he's stayed the trip extremely well.
"I came round the corner into the home straight with Nacarat in front of me and I thought if Kauto is not here now, he's not coming.
"You don't allow yourself to dream about moments like this because they are too few and far between. It's just a spectacular day."
His proud father had told all who wanted to listen before the race that Sam might not have the professional experience and finishing strength of a McCoy, but he was brilliant at presenting a horse at a fence.
"That is the perfect riposte. He has justified my faith in him," said Robert as the crowd around the winner's enclosure cheered both a new champion and the old one.
"What could be better than that? There is no bigger adrenalin rush in the world.
"The pressure was off as the focus was all on Kauto Star, who is a king in his own right, one of the best we've seen over the last 50 years."
Henderson, who also trains the runner-up Riverside Theatre and enjoyed a total of five wins on the day, was in tears after the race as his first victory in this great three-mile contest sank in.
He just looked like he had lost half a yard of pace round here at the age of 11
Kauto Star's trainer Paul Nicholls
"I spoiled the party, I'm sorry," he said.
"We've always known Long Run has a huge amount of talent and I'm so pleased he has shown it today."
So what now for Kauto Star? Owner Clive Smith has always said they would never make him run when considered past his best. The horse was the first to earn £2m in prize money over jumps and owes him nothing.
Some may feel he should be retired, but Nicholls believes he had a rare off-day and will prepare him to try one more time for a third Gold Cup victory at Cheltenham in March.
"To be honest, I didn't ever think he was going to win during the race and there are no excuses. He just laboured a little bit and he could have jumped better," said the champion trainer.
"He just looked like he had lost half a yard of pace round here at the age of 11.
"He's come back safe and sound that's the main thing.
"If he is sound and well there is no reason why he can't run in this year's Gold Cup. Cheltenham will suit him better than Kempton does now, he's just that bit slower."
Stablemate Denman, the 2008 winner, and last year's victor Imperial Commander are likely to be in that Cheltenham field, and you would have to think Long Run is likely to join them.
In the aftermath of a fascinating King George battle, I sought opinion from a former Grand National and Gold Cup-winning jockey on what many viewed as a surprise result.
Mick Fitzgerald, along with McCoy, Walsh and Sam Thomas, is one of only four men to have ridden Kauto Star in a race since he arrived from France and was for many years stable jockey for Henderson.
"Kauto Star is a wonderful horse, and so is Long Run. You could say the king is dead, long live the king. A new star is born, the world is his oyster" said Fitzgerald.
For Sam, there may well be a private moment when he looks to the skies and thinks of his brother, whose initials are sewn into his saddle. He would be well proud.
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