Kauto Star established himself as the finest performer in the history of the King George VI Chase, and perhaps as the best steeplechaser that National Hunt racing has seen, when he won the feature event on the Boxing Day card here for the fifth time on Monday.
The 11-year-old was roared home by a capacity crowd as he beat Long Run, last year's King George winner, by one-and-a-quarter lengths, under Ruby Walsh who has never lost on Kauto Star at Kempton, and will now attempt to become the oldest winner of the Cheltenham Gold Cup for 43 years at the track's Festival meeting in March.
A fifth win in the King George proved beyond Desert Orchid, another great favourite with the Christmas racegoers at Kempton, and appeared to have eluded Kauto Star too when he was only third in the race 12 months ago despite starting as the favourite at odds-on. He was not even thought to be the main challenger for the race from the powerful Paul Nicholls yard at the start of the current season as age appeared to be catching up with him, but Kauto Star looked like a different horse when winning the Betfair Chase at Haydock in November and the authoritative success on Monday confirmed that he is back to his best.
Kauto Star was always towards the front in a seven-strong field, and was clearly still full of running as he took control of the race on the far side with just under a mile to run.
Long Run and Sam Waley-Cohen, his amateur jockey, attempted to close the gap in the home straight, but Kauto Star galloped on strongly and three more fluent jumps at the end of a flawless round were enough to secure victory. Captain Chris, a winner at last season's Cheltenham Festival, was another 17 lengths away in third, while Master Minded, a stablemate of Kauto Star and a dual winner of the two‑mile Champion Chase at Cheltenham, was pulled up before the last after suffering an injury.
"I knew we had him right and he looked fantastic," Nicholls said after unsaddling Kauto Star. "It was a great ride today, we were really positive with him and he galloped all the way to the line. It was awesome.
"When he's right like that, he's still as good as ever. He's come in here and he's hardly having a blow. He used to be like that when he was at his best, whereas last year he was out on his feet. The reception shows what a great horse he is and why jumps racing is so popular. Six times he's been here now, and he's won five and finished third in the other. I'll never have another horse like him."
Kauto Star finished behind Long Run in both the King George and the Gold Cup last season, but Monday's race levels their personal series at two victories each, with the Gold Cup at Cheltenham in March likely to be the decider.
"He might be 11, but he could be eight the way he's been at home," Nicholls said. "On today's form, he probably deserves to be favourite for the Gold Cup. If we can just get him in really good shape like this, he'll go really well at Cheltenham. I think he's got to be the one to beat on his two runs this year. He finished weakly in the Gold Cup last year, but the way he's finishing this year, he'll be fine."
Despite his trainer's confidence, Kauto Star is still quoted behind Long Run in the Gold Cup betting. Long Run is the 3-1 favourite with Kauto Star at 9-2, and it is 12-1 bar the first two in the betting, raising the prospect of an enthralling head-to-head at the Festival.
The win on Monday was worth just over £100,000 in prize money, taking Kauto Star's career earnings to nearly £2.4m.
"I knew this was the biggest day of my racing life, 24 years or so," Clive Smith, Kauto Star's owner, said. "It's unbelievable and I'm so proud. He's such a magnificent animal.
"He's got such a heart. He wants to go on. He's a lion. I can't tell you how excited I am. I'm shaking."
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