Is veteran Kauto ready to call time on a stellar career?

By Cornelius LysaghtBBC horse racing correspondent
Kauto Star is paraded following the racing on Betfred Haldon Gold Cup Day at Exeter Racecourse
Kauto Star has competed in 19 races at Grade 1 level, winning 14

Saturday's could be the most important race in the illustrious career of Kauto Star, a true champion who has lived up to his name for six seasons now.

That might sound a bizarre claim, given that the soon to be 12-year-old has already had 19 outings at jump racing's highest level and won 14 of them, including this very race three times. But it is still quite likely true.

Because the time to bow out is ', and the Haydock feature will go some way - perhaps all the way - to telling those nearest him where they stand.

And, as with all sporting stars, getting the timing right is all important.

He is a veteran these days, and potential new stars - specifically Long Run, who dethroned him in the King George VI Chase and Cheltenham Gold Cup - are looming ever larger.

Kauto Star's trainer Paul Nicholls does not like to be drawn on the future, but the gelding's owner Clive Smith has acknowledged that a crushing defeat at Haydock could mean the party is over.

Such a result would come on top of a single victory last season, plus two thirds behind Long Run, and a 'pull-up' at Punchestown in May.

The retirement talk doesn't please the Kauto Star camp, who see it as negative, but this is not a case of fans - and there are lots of them - wanting to crab the horse, but simply hating to see their much-loved hero beaten.

Along with Denman and Best Mate, Kauto Star - once again the mount of Ruby Walsh at Haydock - has ensured the increasing appeal of jump racing in the early years of the 21st century.

And, given the sheer range of his accomplishment, the horse they dubbed 'L'Extraterrestre' - 'The Extraterrestrial' - in his early hurdling days in France can be said to have done most of all.

From the two miles of the prestigious Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown, through the examining speed of the three-mile King George VI Chase at Kempton, to the gradient-charged extra quarter-mile of the Gold Cup itself, his dominance has been enjoyed and admired.

No other horse has won four successive King Georges or regained a lost Gold Cup title, as Kauto Star did in 2010 - when the finishing post is finally passed, this will be the CV of a true steeplechasing great.

The good news for Kauto's prospects at the Betfair Chase is that Nicholls reports the horse is in great shape, and fitter than he has been at a similar stage of previous seasons.

He is hoping we can put a line through the Punchestown disappointment, and that the performance behind Long Run at Cheltenham puts him right in there with a shout.

The bad news, on the other hand, is that Long Run re-opposes on identical weight terms, and there was a gaping 11 lengths between them at Cheltenham in March.

Long Run is the obvious favourite this time, though rivals will be clinging to the stat that says only seven of the last 15 Gold Cup winners won first time out in the following campaign.

Also due to test their championship pretensions in what is shaping up to be a race of the highest calibre are Diamond Harry, Time For Rupert and Weird Al.

Haydock sees the latest big Saturday during a busy November for jump racing, and the sport will be hoping for another weekend without drama on the whip front.

It is worth noting that at Cheltenham's Open meeting last weekend all infringements of the new whip rules - twice amended since coming in on 10 October - were by young, less experienced riders.

The regulars are adapting, although they still insist that the regulations, even as amended, are too strict.

The vibe I have been getting is that further softening can be expected in the new year when the British Horseracing Authority's new chief executive Paul Bittar takes up his post.

That would not be the worst opening PR salvo by the highly rated Aussie.