Donn's Articles » King George reflections

King George reflections

Champions get beaten and the world keeps turning. The strange sense of emptiness that left Kauto Star fans hollow on Saturday afternoon was the same sense that accompanied Kerry fans as they wended their way out of Croke Park on 16th September 1982. Both sets of supporters had travelled in justified expectation, determined that they would be present to witness an historic five-in-a-row, both trudged home deflated, green and gold scarves at half-mast, heads bowed under green and gold caps.

Defeated champs react in different ways. When Borg was beaten by McEnroe in the 1981 Wimbledon Final, he hung up his golden racquet almost immediately and went to live on an island off the Swedish coast. When Steve Davis lost out to Tony Knowles in the first round of the 1982 World Snooker Championship, he went back to Sheffield the following year and won his title back.

Many advocated pipe and slippers for Kauto immediately after Saturday’s defeat. Many still do, even in calculated reflection that the passage of a couple of days allows. You can see the angle, Kauto owes nobody anything, not Clive Smith, not Paul Nicholls, not a racing public that he has taken to the edge of their seats and back, not the racing media, whose pages he has adorned for the last six years. And what if the unthinkable happened, as many feared it had as he crashed out at the fourth last in last year’s Gold Cup? What if he were to join Best Mate, Valiramix, Gloria Victis, poor Peveril as recently as Saturday, tragic heroes all, carried off the battlefield on their shields? Clive Smith has always said that Kauto Star would be retired the moment he showed signs of regression.

But what if Saturday’s performance wasn’t a sign of regression? What if it was just an off-day? We all have them. Horses can’t tell you that they feel under the weather, but the fact that Kauto returned with a bloody nose suggests that, at best, all was not 100% with the athlete.

He has had off-days in the past, like when he was beaten by Denman in the Gold Cup, like when he was beaten by Our Vic in the Totesport Bowl, and nobody asked him then for his badge and his gun. The Racing Post Rating that he recorded on Saturday was 5lb higher than that which he achieved at Down Royal on his seasonal debut last November, and if he hadn’t made that horrendous mistake at the second last – which would have severed his connection with AP McCoy had the champ not been made of a compound of elastic and super glue – he would surely have maintained his record of finishing first or second in all his completed chases.

If he did have an off-day, he would have been in good company back at Ditcheat on Saturday evening. The champion trainer sent eight horses to Kempton and, unusually, none collected. While Organisateur went close, Like Minded, The Nightingale, Escort’men and Brampour all performed a fair way below expectations. Nicholls has had just five winners from 44 runners in January so far, a strike rate of 11%, his lowest in any sinlge month since September 2008, when he had no winners from two runners. And January is usually a month in which his percentage return runs well into the mid-20s. They can’t all be zinging all of the time, and there is a chance that Kauto’s form is under the small cloud that hangs over Manor Farm Stables for the moment.

True, Desert Orchid was retired when he fell at the third last, a beaten horse, in the 1991 King George, but Dessie was 13 then. The just-turned-11-year-old Kauto Star is a veritable whipper-snapper by comparison. When Desert Orchid was 11 he won the Racing Post Chase under 12st 3lb, he won the Irish National under 12st and he rounded off the year by winning the King George by 12 lengths. That handicap win off top weight – isn’t that why the Hennessy was under consideration? Isn’t that why the Bet365 Gold Cup, as far as we know, is still on the table?

Kauto Star does have the age stat to overcome if he lines up in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, the one that tells you that no horse aged older than 10 has won the Gold Cup since the Ryan Price-trained What A Myth triumphed under Paul Kelleway in 1969. That is a compelling stat, but he had that stat to overcome before Saturday, and he still topped most ante post lists.

How much sense would it make to leave the able-bodied highest-rated staying chaser in the business in a field while the Cheltenham Gold Cup was being run? And how happy would Kauto Star himself be, frolicking in a field for the rest of his days? Who knows, but there are only so many rounds of golf you can play.

No horse has ever regained the Gold Cup after losing it before Kauto did so in 2009. He couldn’t do that twice, could he?

© The Racing Post, 18th January 2011