Changing of the guard

The publication of the Anglo-Irish National Hunt end of season rating on Tuesday saw Kauto Star rated 180, and regain his place as champion staying chaser. His mark was 2lb ahead of Long Run, and 12lbs higher than Gold Cup winner Synchronised and Grand National winner Neptune Collonges.

It was the seventh year in which Kauto Star had topped one of the three chasing divisions and Phil Smith, head of handicapping at the British Horseracing Authority was quick to recognise his brilliance over the last few years. He said, “Kauto Star is undoubtedly the best chaser we’ve had on these shores for many a long year. We have him down as recording 22 performances of 170+ over his career, which is stunning. Apart from his level of ability, his consistency is fantastic and he had the ability to be champion at two miles, two and a half miles, and three miles-plus in the same year (06-07). It’s amazing to have a horse who is so consistent and so versatile.”

You get the impression that even Smith, with his many years of day to day observation of racing, was somewhat surprised by Kauto Star’s performance this season. He says he thought his swansong was going to be the win in Haydock’s Betfair Chase last November, when Kauto Star looked fully wound up, whereas Long Run, who finished second, was untidy in his jumping on a track that didn’t suit him.

Smith says, “I fully expected Long Run to get revenge (in the Kling George VI Chase) at Kempton, so when Kauto won and the two of them put something like 17 lengths between themselves and Captain Chris, there’s no question it was another 180+ performance.”

But it does look as though the chasing arena could be about to witness a changing of the guard. Kauto Star will be 13 when Cheltenham comes round next year, and must be unlikely to go for another Gold Cup. Synchronised was killed in the National, and Neptune Collonges has been retired. So too has Master Minded, who headed up the two and a half mile category.

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So who stands out in the novice category as the most likely candidates to replace these stars? Arkle winner Sprinter Sacre heads this group, and his mark of 169 makes him the highest novice in the 13-year history of the ratings. His trainer, Nicky Henderson, also has the leading 3-mile plus novice in RSA Chase winner Bobs Worth on 160.

In between, both in distance and mark, the Irish at last make an entry in the ratings. They have the top two in the intermediate distance category, in the Paul Casey trained Flemenstar (163) and Willie Mullins’ Sir Des Champs (162).

Noel O’Brien, senior handicapper in Ireland, said, “Nothing that I saw at Fairyhouse (when Flemenstar won the Powers Gold Cup in April) makes me worry that Irish Flemenstar is not going to get the Gold Cup trip and I think Sir Des Champs is crying out for a trip. In recent years there has been a dearth of good staying chasers, partly due to injury, but hope springs eternal. I think we are blessed with a very strong bunch of novices this year and we are coming into a time when the staying chasers are in flux”

Indeed we are, but it will take a substantial step up on what they have achieved so far if any of them is to make their mark as the equal of Kauto Star, Denman, Long Run and Synchronised. As Phil Smith says, “It’s a huge vacuum where the novice chasers can come and stake a claim, but over the past four or five years they have not been good enough to do that.”

With the current crop largely gone, there isn’t a better opportunity for one of them to step up to the plate, and this time, for the first time in many years, it could be an Irish horse to do so.

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