Kauto Star's first post-retirement appearance at the William Hill King George VI Chase coincided with the most gripping finish since the era before the five-timer winner as 15/8 favourite Long Run claimed a dramatic second victory in the race.
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Horse and rider both plumbed the depths of their reserves through attritional conditions in Sunbury.
Rider Sam 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 distinguished 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 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 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 resolution saw the former champion regain his lead on the run-in.
"He was so brave," said Waley-Cohen.
"I had to keep asking him - I asked him early and maybe I asked too much as he was tired but so brave.
"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.
"It was probably only when we passed the post that I thought he'd won. Dickie (Johnson) had gone past me, but I could feel him rallying.
"Dad has had every opportunity to put someone else on the horse, but he has always been really good and said he was my ride. I'd like to thank him more than anyone."
Considering the Gold Cup, for which Sky Bet kept Long Run at 7/1, 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 back in the driving seat to win the trainers' championship.
"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. He's young but has been doing everything right."
Henderson 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, as 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."
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Johnson was given a nine-day ban (January 9-17) and fined £900 by the stewards for his use of the whip on Captain Chris.
After the race he said: "I thought coming to the last I was going to win, but the other horse is a proven Gold Cup winner and he's just outstayed me.
"It was a great run and I'm just looking forward to riding him on better ground."
Grands Crus travelled notably well on his return from a breathing operation but tied up in the final stages to pass the past 14 lengths further back in third, ahead of the gutsy Champion Court.
Jockey Tom Scudamore said: "He ran a great race and I'm most pleased he looks a lot more like his old self."