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-timer winner as his old Lambourn-based foe Long Run claimed a dramatic 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, until 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 in Sunbury.
Waley-Cohen and Long Run have already provided a first Cheltenham Gold Cup in 2011 for his owner, the jockey’s father Robert, and for 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 all looked 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 in the home straight.
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.
“This is his fifth year of competing at this level and he means an enormous amount to us. That was racing at it’s best for me. I can’t put it into words. It’s an honour and a privilege.”
Considering the Gold Cup, for which sponsors Betfred cut Long Run to 6-1 behind his Lambourn 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 and the earlier races here have made a difference to the ground.
“It’s hard to know if you’re going to get home, but the horse is just a star.”
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 today 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).
“We’ll have to discuss things, it doesn’t have to be like that.
“It has been a great day, and with Sam and that horse to come back like that, it was brilliant.
“Not just to win the race, but to come back and prove quite a lot of points.”