Donn's Articles » Kauto Star

Kauto Star

As they went to the second fence down the back straight on the final circuit in the Betfair Chase at Haydock last Saturday, Kauto Star was joined on the front end by Long Run and Diamond Harry. One on his inside, one on his outside, the younger horses ganging up on the older one, invoking a pincer movement that could have squeezed the heart and the will out of the elder statesman. But not this elder statesman.

Ruby Walsh, on Kauto Star’s back, remained unperturbed. Eyeing up the fence, horse and rider saw the same stride, just as they had at the 10 fences that lay behind them, just as they would at the seven that they still had to cross. Walsh gave Kauto a little squeeze, just to let him know that they were on the same wavelength, and Kauto responded willingly once more: one, two, up. Poetry.

Sam Waley-Cohen on Long Run saw a stride as well, but it was a long stride, too long for me, the horse figured, and he put in a short one for himself. He got in tight to the fence, hit it with his chest, and lost valuable ground and momentum at a crucial stage of the race, just as the pace was picking up, just as Walsh was starting to turn the screw. Kauto came away from that fence on an even keel, silk-smooth, still coasting; Long Run came away from it red-faced, under pressure, a length down and ridden along, kick-started again.

If there was a fulcrum around which the race turned, it was that fence. In truth, however, you could never have been unhappy with the way that Kauto Star travelled and jumped. There was no point in the race at which you thought that any one of his rivals was travelling better than him, and his jumping was immaculate, 10 out of 10. Even at the last fence, the fence at which, in the past, he has given his supporters heart-jumps and his detractors fodder, he was foot-perfect.

Paul Nicholls didn’t seem to lack confidence in Kauto Star in the lead up to the race. The trainer seemed to think that he had his horse back, as good as he possibly could have had him, ready to run for his life on his seasonal debut. Even so, there was always a chance, going into Saturday’s race, that it was going to be his last, that the Betfair Chase would be the shield on which Kauto Star was going to be carried out.

Despite some comments to the contrary, talk of Kauto’s retirement after he was pulled up in the Guinness Gold Cup at Punchestown last May was not out of order. In his two runs immediately prior to Punchestown, he had finished third behind Long Run in the King George, and he had finished third again behind the same Long Run in the Gold Cup, a heavy-legged warrior who climbed wearily up the final hill and just held onto his place on the podium. As an 11-year-old rising 12, and with the ignominy of Punchestown as fresh as paint, it was difficult to envision a scenario in which he was going to be able to beat the five-year-younger Long Run this season.

If he had finished fourth on Saturday and bowed out, you would have applauded and hailed Kauto Star as one of the best you had ever seen. The fact that, unusually, general expectations were not sky high, makes his performance all the more mesmerising. To put the magnitude of pre-race expectation into context, his SP of 6/1 was the most generous SP that has ever been returned about him in seven years and 29 races since he first arrived in the UK.

And it wasn’t just that he beat Long Run, that he had the new champion on the ropes at every stage of the race and that he went away on the run-in to win by eight lengths, a margin that surprised even his rider Ruby Walsh when he was informed about it afterwards. His performance was more solid even than that becasue, in Weird Al, Diamond Harry and Time For Rupert, he also had three of the best young progressive staying chasers in the business trailing in his wake. According to Racing Post Ratings, Kauto Star’s performance on Saturday was the best that he has put up since he won the King George by 36 lengths in 2009, and that is astonishing.

At last, if the reception that he and Ruby Walsh were afforded when they were led back into the winner’s enclosure is a guide, it appears that Kauto Star has managed to wend his way into the affections of his public. He has had punters on side from early, punters love to back a winner, they love to back a winning favourite, and Kauto Star has been a winning favourite 18 times. The public’s affection, however, has been a slower burn.

It takes more than raw ability and prolificacy to woo your public. Indeed, sometimes prolificacy can count against you. Steve Davis was the most successful snooker player of his era, but he was never the most popular. The most popular National Hunt racehorses in history all had something else as well as ability, they all had an extra dimension. Desert Orchid was grey and exuberant as well as brilliant. Danoli was trained by an unheralded trainer who was light on experience but heavy on personality. Dawn Run was a mare, an Irish mare, the only horse ever to win a Champion Hurdle and a Gold Cup. Arkle was Himself.

Kauto Star had nothing to set him apart through the early stages of his career except his ability. A bay horse, same as the majority of other horses, trained by a champion trainer, ridden by a champion jockey, owned by a fairly textbook owner, bred in France. No adversity to overcome.

It is no coincidence that probably the greatest reception of his career – and the one that Paul Nicholls says will live long in his memory – was reserved for last Saturday, one of the only times in his life when he was the underdog. That’s how you garner the public’s affection: be the underdog and win. Be the old man of the party, be a whisper away from your gold watch, be the 11-year-old, be almost twice as old as your main adversary, and beat him pointless.

The talk now is that the Betfair Chase was Kauto Star’s Gold Cup this year, that Paul Nicholls had squeezed him down to the pips to have him flea-fit for last Saturday, and that he will not have sufficient time in the five weeks that separate the Betfair Chase and St Stephen’s Day to recover in order that he can be a potent force in another King George. In reality, you would be traversing that grey area between reality and fairytale if you were to go down the five-King-Georges route, but, with regard to Kauto Star’s position in the pantheon of horse racing, it doesn’t really matter if he can’t.

He has proven himself to be a truly great National Hunt racehorse, perhaps the best that this generation of racegoers has witnessed. He has performed at the highest level over all distances, on all types of ground, on all types of track, left-handed, right-handed, up and down hills, flat, tight, galloping. He had the pace to win two Tingle Creek Chases over two miles, he is the only horse to win four King Georges in a row, and he had the stamina to win two Gold Cups. He is the only horse ever to win the Gold Cup, lose it, then come back and win it again. And now, having notched up his fourth Betfair Chase last Saturday, he is the only horse ever to win two different Group 1 or Grade 1 races four times.

He is an extraordinary racehorse, a phenomenon, and it is correct that he is recognised as such.

© The Sunday Times, 27th November 2011