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Kauto's chance to be best of all time; Regaining the Gold Cup for a second time at the age of 12 would put the seal on an amazing career for legend of steeplechasing, says James Robson.

Byline: James Robson

LIKE all the great showmen Kauto Star has kept everyone guessing. The two-times Gold Cup winner's fitness has been afforded the kind of scrutiny usually reserved for an England player's metatarsal in a World Cup year.

The most talked about thing on four legs faces D-Day today when trainer Paul Nicholls will make a final decision ahead of Friday's Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup.

The 12-year-old will be crowned the greatest all-round chaser ever if he can match Arkle's treble - but he will have already overcome odds just to make the post.

If there was mild concern when Nicholls cancelled a media visit last month following a bout of coughing in his yard, it was fullon panic when Kauto Star took a tumble during practice two weeks ago.

It not only threatened a potentially classic showdown with reigning champion Long Run but the gelding's chance to truly go down as the greatest.

For more than four decades every multiple Gold Cup winner has had to live with the tag of 'best since Arkle.' But should Kauto Star better his own record and become the first horse to regain the trophy for a second time, few could question his place in history.

Which is why Nicholls' assertion that the 2007 and 2009 winner was "100 per cent sound" after his gallop at Wincanton on Friday was accompanied by a collective sigh of relief by anyone with Cheltenham close to their heart.

"We're very happy," said the trainer. "It was just what we wanted. He went nicely and was full of enthusiasm. That was just what we wanted to see. He'd been like that before he'd had the fall and a week is a long time with horses.

"The improvement from one Friday to the following was just absolutely unbelievable. We're very happy with him and he's in great form now.

"You would be disappointed if he couldn't get there. We only want to run him not to make the numbers up but to be competitive and have a big chance."

Nicholls already declared Kauto Star the best of his generation after winning a fifth King George VI Chase at Kempton in December.

And the hero's welcome he received when paraded through the streets of Ditcheat in Somerset was evidence of his unique popularity.

"I am biased but I think he is probably the best," said Nicholls.

"Towin fiveKing George's, he's a dual GoldCup winner - he's phenomenal.

I never saw Arkle so I don't know how good Arkle was, but it's a different generation and he's certainly the best I've seen.

"He's a star now. He's been great for racing, great for the village, great for Somerset and great for the whole team."

While Kauto Star is the nation's favourite chaser, Long Run remains the bookies' tip.

In fending off previous winners Denman and Kauto Star, last year's victory was one of the most significant in Gold Cup history.

But two defeats to his main rival at the end of 2011 - including the King George - have led to doubts about his credentials ahead of this year's race.

Still, back-to-back victories would see the seven-year-old match Kauto Star's record. Itwould also make dentist/jockey SamWaley-Cohen the first amateur to win two Gold Cups, while trainer Nicky Henderson could become the most successful trainer at Cheltenham, needing just two more wins at the Festival to better the 40 saddled by Fulke Walwyn.

"These four days are all about races for which almost every horse is bought," said Henderson. "Almost as soon as they are born, people want to know which races at Cheltenham they can go for.

"So the hardest thing, which I've had to do several times recently, is to ring up owners to tell them that the dream is over.

"But if it got any easier, or if I didn't get the buzz out of it, I wouldn't be doing it."

David Pipe's Grands Crus looks best placed to prevent the Gold Cup being a two-horse race but the trainer now looks likely to enter the seven-year-old in the RSA Chase, with a final decision due to be made today.

"We will see how Kauto is - obviously he looked in fantastic form when he galloped at Wincanton," said Pipe.

"It looks like he will be going for the Gold Cup, which is great for racing but maybe not so good for us."

Meanwhile, Neil Mulholland has backed Midnight Chase's each-way claims in the Gold Cup after finishing fifth last year.

"We are hoping for a place and anything else would be a bonus," said the trainer.

Top trainers Top current trainers at the Cheltenham Festival Trainer Wins Nicky Henderson (pictured) 39 Paul Nicholls 30 Willie Mullins 21 Edward O'Grady 18 Jonjo O'Neill 18 Philip Hobbs 15 Nigel Twiston-Davies 13 Alan King 12 Ferdy Murphy 10 David Elsworth 9 FESTIVAL FEVER "Cheltenham is the greatest horse racing festival in the world - but I'll be watching it on TV at home because I'm allergic to horses!" - former world boxing champion turned promoter Ricky Hatton.

FESTIVAL FEVER "Cheltenham is the best sporting spectacle you could imagine, incredible. I wouldn't mind if my ashes were spread there" - former Liverpool, Newcastle and England soccer star Terry McDermott.

Cheltenham by numbers 5 The record number of times Golden Miller won the Gold Cup between 1932-36. Owned by the eccentric heiress Dorothy Paget, it triumphed at both Cheltenham and the Grand National in '34.

3.25 The distance of the course in miles for the Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup.

7 The estimated total gate receipts in millions of pounds for the Festival. Around 230,000 spectators are expected to step through the gates over the four days of Cheltenham, with ticket prices ranging from pounds 20-80.

3 The distance in miles that all the hot dogs, burgers and sandwiches eaten at the Festival would span if laid end-to-end.

13,500 The value in pounds of the Betfred Cheltenham Gold Cup. A new trophy, weighing 10 ounces of gold, is minted each year. The value of the race is significantly more - pounds 500,000. The total prize money for the entire Festival is almost pounds 3.8m.

650 The typical number of helicopter landings at the course during Festival week, which makes it the busiest temporary airfield in the country. An estimated 30,000 cars, 2,000 coaches and 50 stretch limos will bring spectators to the Festival.

4 The number of statues commemorating Cheltenham's greatest winners. Golden Miller, Arkle, Dawn Run and Best Mate have all been immortalised.

Cheltenham by numbers 27 The number of races that comprise the Festival.

40 The most winners saddled by a trainer in Festival history, held by Fulke Walwyn, spanning 40 years from 1946-86. His stable stars included Mill House, Anzio and Dramatist.

600 The estimated amount of money in millions that will bet during the Festival.

32 Ruby Walsh holds the record for the most winners ridden by a jockey in Festival history, seven clear of Tony McCoy.

1 The number of horses to have won the Champion Hurdle and Gold Cup. Dawn Run won the Champion Hurdle in 1984 and the Gold Cup two years later.

100-1 The highest-priced winner of the Gold Cup, Norton's Coin in 1990. Trained by farmer Sirrel Griffiths, near Carmarthen, it beat Toby Tobias and Desert Orchid.

3 The number of amateur jockeys to have won the Gold Cup since the Second WorldWar. Richard Black (1947 on Fortina) and Jim Wilson (1981 on Little Owl) were joined last year by Sam Waley-Cohen. The 29-yearold businessman stormed home on Long Run to beat Denman and Kauto Star.

15 The number of consecutive wins over hurdles recorded by the Paul Nicholls-trained Big Buck's. Victory in this year's Ladbrokes World Hurdle would be a record fourth success in that race for the gelding.



GUESSING GAME Kauto Star (on the right) gallops at Wincanton racecourse. Right: Trainer Nicky Henderson with Long Run at the Seven Barrows Stables, Lambourn
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Title Annotation:Sport
Publication:Huddersfield Daily Examiner (Huddersfield, England)
Date:Mar 12, 2012
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