03/14/2012 11:36AM

Cheltenham Gold Cup: Kauto Star still going strong at 12


CHELTENHAM, England – The longevity of Kauto Star, who will attempt to win his third Cheltenham Gold Cup on Friday, is easy to admire.

First is the age. The veteran steeplechaser is 12, an age when most horses have long been retired. Bred in France, Kauto Star is so old that he is from the same 2000 foal crop as the American Thoroughbreds Empire Maker, Funny Cide, Ghostzapper, Saint Liam, and Vindication. Bill Clinton was president the year they were foaled.

Kauto Star won his first Gold Cup, over three miles, two furlongs, and 22 tough fences, in 2007; finished second in 2008; and regained the title in 2009. That, in itself, was a milestone. No horse had won the race, lost, and then won it again. The race was first run in 1924.

In 2010, Kauto Star was the 8-11 favorite, jumped poorly, and fell four fences from the finish. Last year, he ran third, beaten 11 lengths by Long Run, a race that many observers felt would be his last appearance in the race.

When he resumed training late last fall with leading trainer Paul Nicholls, expectations were low. He was 25-1 for the Gold Cup in the future book.

“Then he won those two races,” Nicholls said.

A winner of 23 of 40 starts, Kauto Star won the Betfair Chase at Haydock Park in November and an unprecedented fifth King George VI Chase at Kempton Park on Dec. 26. He was back in the argument for the Gold Cup.

“People are so keen on him,” Nicholls said. “I’m proud of the fact that he’ll be here on Friday. We all hold him in such high esteem.”

The enthusiasm for Kauto Star’s Gold Cup revival was dented in late February when he fell during a training session at Nicholls’s base, about two hours south of Cheltenham, in Southwest England. Nicholls announced that Kauto Star was questionable for the Gold Cup, expressing concern about a possible muscle strain. It was not until Monday that his participation in Friday’s race was confirmed.

The concern was even lower after a training session Wednesday, Nicholls said.

“He went well this morning,” Nicholls said between races that afternoon.

Even with his widespread popularity, Kauto Star, who is owned by Clive Smith, will not be favored Friday. Long Run, second in the Betfair Chase and King George and the winner of a Grade 2 prep race at Newbury on Feb. 17, was the 7-4 favorite as of Wednesday with Coral bookmakers.

Kauto Star was 7-2, followed by Burton Port at 7-1. The other 12 expected runners were 11-1 or higher. None of them have the name recognition as Kauto Star.

Long Run’s owner, Robert Waley-Cohen, is the chairman of Cheltenham Racecourse. His son, Sam, an amateur jockey, will ride Long Run as he did last year. The pre-race attention devoted to Kauto Star is fine with the senior Waley-Cohen.

“I’m relaxed about it,” he said between races here Tuesday. “You settle the argument on the racecourse.”

Interest in the Gold Cup, which compares to the Breeders’ Cup Classic as a season-ending race for older horses, is always high. Friday’s program at Cheltenham, the last of the four-day festival, was sold out as of last week, with a capacity crowd of 70,000 expected.

Wednesday morning, on the road leading from the center of Cheltenham to the racecourse, ticket scalpers were asking the equivalent of $160 for clubhouse admission Friday. If Kauto Star and Long Run are side by side at the last fence, paying that much to see the race may be a bargain.