03/14/2007 12:00AM

Kauto Star heads Gold Cup Chase


Kauto Star is clearly the horse to beat in the 3 5/16-mile $798,000 Cheltenham Gold Cup Chase on Friday. The 7-year-old gelding has won all five of his starts this season, among them victories over prime Gold Cup rivals Exotic Dancer, Beef or Salmon, and L’Ami.

Kauto Star also holds a seven-length decision in Sandown’s Tingle Creek Chase on Dec. 2 over Voy Por Ustedes, the winner of Wednesday’s Queen Mother Champion Chase at Cheltenham. Trained by Paul Nicholls, Kauto Star goes on any sort of ground and will have regular rider Ruby Walsh in the saddle.

If there is a chink in Kauto Star (Ladbroke’s 3-2 favorite), it is that he fell as the favorite at the third fence in his lone previous outing at Cheltenham, last year’s two-mile Queen Mother Champion Chase. If he falters on Friday, Exotic Dancer, the eight-length runner-up to Kauto Star in the King George VI Chase at Kempton on Dec. 26, could pick up the pieces. Trained by Jonjo O’Neill, he prepped with an impressive course-and-distance Group 2 score at Cheltenham on Jan. 27 and will have ace jumps rider Tony McCoy on board.

The 14-1 Beef or Salmon is the sentimental favorite. Trained by Michael Hourigan in Ireland, this will be his fifth try in the world’s most prestigious steeplechase. The closest he came was fourth in 2004, but he prepped nicely with a win in the Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup Chase at Leopardstown on Feb. 10 over The Listener, taking revenge for a loss to the same horse in the Lexus Chase on Dec. 28.

Francois Doumen, who won the Gold Cup with The Fellow in 1994, will saddle French invader L’Ami. Just three-quarters of a length behind Kauto Star in Newbury’s Aon Chase on Feb. 10 when he was in receipt of 10 pounds, he will relish Cheltenham’s soft ground but will be facing Kauto Star at equal weights this time.