KAUTO Star has now been reduced to a ceremonial role in the William Hill King George VI Chase. But his first appearance at Kempton in retirement coincided with the most gripping finish since the era before the five-time winner as his old foe Long Run claimed a second victory.
The pair ended on a one-all draw in their meetings in this race and it looked as if Sam Waley-Cohen’s mount would have to settle for second again, as last year. But the determined amateur conjured one last effort to stick Long Run’s neck past Captain Chris at the line.
Whether a professional would do better than Waley- Cohen on Long Run will always remain a matter of conjecture, and the 15-8 favourite did not jump well in the main, but horse and rider plumbed the very depths of their reserves through muddy and foul conditions.
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Waley-Cohen and Long Run provided a first Cheltenham Gold Cup in 2011 for his owner, the jockey’s father Robert, and for distinguished trainer Nicky Henderson, who saddled a 76-1 four-timer on the card, including the Grade One Christmas Hurdle.
The seven-year-old’s reputation, however, looked to be fading with a third-placed finish in the last Gold Cup and a fairly transparent defeat to Silviniaco Conti on his comeback at Haydock. But that was all forgotten as Waley-Cohen cruised towards the fifth from home.
He clouted that one, allowing the weakening front-runner Champion Court a chance to slip through the back door, and Captain Chris and Richard Johnson to sneak even closer and mount their own challenge.
Last year’s third was in front before the last fence and Captain Chris was better at it than Long Run, but sheer resolution saw the former champion regain his lead on the run-in.
‘‘He was so brave,’’ said Waley-Cohen. ‘‘I had to keep asking him. I asked him early and maybe I asked too much as he was tired.
‘‘This is his fifth year of competing at this level and he means an enormous amount to us. That was racing at its best for me. I can’t put it into words. It’s an honour and a privilege.
‘‘It was probably only when we passed the post that I thought he’d won. Dickie (Johnson) had gone past me, but I could feel him rallying.
‘‘Dad has had every opportunity to put someone else on the horse, but he has always been really good and said he was my ride. I’d like to thank him more than anyone.’’ Considering the Gold Cup, for which sponsors Betfred cut Long Run to 6-1 behind his stablemate Bobs Worth at 9-2 favourite, Waley-Cohen said: ‘‘It’s going to be a different type of race at Cheltenham. I hope it’s not as testing or as wet. The earlier races here have made a difference to the ground. It’s hard to know if you’re going to get home.’’ Henderson’s haul puts him right back on Paul Nicholls’ tail in the hunt for the trainers’ championship.
He said: ‘‘It was a brave call to go on when he did and it was the right call to make.
‘‘It was a battle out there and not the best ground for any of them. You would have to say last year was a disappointment but he’s been running good races all the time.
‘‘We had it in our minds that Bobs Worth would run in the Cheltenham race (Argento Chase), and this guy would have the time to go to Newbury (Denman Chase).
‘‘It was brilliant not just to win the race, but to come back and prove quite a lot of points.’’ Johnson was given a nineday ban (January 9-17) and fined £900 by the stewards for exceeding the permitted level with the whip on Captain Chris.
He said: ‘‘I thought coming to the last I was going to win, but the other horse is a proven Gold Cup winner and he just outstayed me.
‘‘It was a great run and I’m just looking forward to riding him on better ground.’’ Grands Crus travelled notably well on his return from a breathing operation and just tied up in the final stages to pass the past 14 lengths further back in third.