Farewell Kauto, a true star of winter
Published 01/07/2015 | 02:30
Some horses become champions and some of those champions break records, but few record-breaking champions also leave behind such rich and abiding memories of dramatic feats like Kauto Star, which died on Monday following a paddock fall.
The winner of the King George VI Chase a record five times and the Cheltenham Gold Cup twice, Kauto Star was the greatest staying chaser since Arkle's day, but he was so much more besides.
Anyone who has ever had a bet on a jumps race, or even just a passing interest in the sport, will know that the horse with the distinctive white star on his forehead, who, when his jumping was on song, would trounce anything put in front of him.
And, when it wasn't, Kauto Star would still usually win, but often only after a near-calamity at the last fence.
A trip to Sheepdrove, the sleepy hamlet on the Downs above Lambourn, is always worthwhile during Royal Ascot.
On the Friday of this year's meeting, looking over his stable door, there was the white-blazed face of jump racing's latter-day Arkle in retirement; a twitch of his ears, a flicker of interest in a passing car.
It was a glimpse in summer to inspire a million positive memories of winter.
If he was not in his stable, he was out in the paddock behind it, always looking an absolute picture of health and as muscled as he ever was when in training.
Kauto Star was the only horse in history to regain the Cheltenham Gold Cup after losing it and he was also the horse to better Desert Orchid's four King George VI Chases by winning five; two records which speak for themselves.
The irony of Kauto Star sustaining an ultimately fatal combination of a fractured pelvis and broken neck frolicking in that paddock, a part of his daily routine, will not be lost on anyone - even to those who know that sort of thing is what horses have an awful propensity to do.
It is as daft as my Grand National winner Mr Frisk slipping on the road in his retirement and breaking a leg with equally fatal consequences.
Few racehorses, though, have combined Kauto Star's brilliance, athleticism, versatility, longevity, intelligence, will to win and charisma in one package.
Many have shared two or three of those attributes, but how many Gold Cup winners were fast enough to win the Tingle Creek Chase twice over two miles as well as triumphing in jump racing's blue riband, not once but twice, over three-and-a-quarter miles?
For much of his career, as he unassumingly racked up big-race success after big-race success, he played second fiddle in the popularity stakes to Denman, the horse in the next-door stable in Paul Nicholls's then all-star yard.
Denman was arguably even more charismatic and his habit of exhausting himself with his effort endeared him to racing's audience.
But there was an absolute sea-change in the way the public began to appreciate Kauto Star and his feats when he won his fourth Betfair Chase at Haydock in 2011.
To all intents and purposes, he had looked finished the previous season when finishing only third in his specialist race - the King George - third in the Gold Cup and then, even worse, when he had been pulled up for the first time in his career in the Punchestown Gold Cup.
Long Run's King George and Gold Cup earlier that year had seemed to signal a changing of the guard and, if retirement was not actually mooted for Kauto Star, he was going to continue only on a race-by-race basis.
But at Haydock, where he was very much the underdog for the first time in his life, he comprehensively turned the tables on the young buck Long Run, beating him by seven lengths.
Like all sports, racing loves nothing more than the romance of a comeback and his reception on returning to the winner's enclosure that day was quite something to behold. I doubt the place will ever see anything like it again.
But it was multiplied many times at Kempton - where a bronze life-size statue now stands in tribute to his feats at the Sunbury course - that St Stephen's Day, where amazing scenes followed his record fifth win in the King George.
His finest, most consummate, performance, however, had come when he won his fourth King George two years earlier. The runner-up, Madison Du Berlais, was 36 lengths away.
If his party trick in previous King George races had been to 'walk' through the last obstacle when the race was in the bag, this triumph combined an immaculate round of spring-heeled jumping with an awesome display of galloping.
Nothing could live with him; even Arkle and Desert Orchid might have struggled that day.
In common with Desert Orchid, his jumping was outstanding 99 per cent of the time, but occasionally he would have a brain lapse and 'miss' a fence.
Kauto Star never did anything by halves on a racecourse and that included his falls, which were invariably heavy.
Certainly, in the early part of his career, if you had backed him you would never count your winnings until he had jumped the last.
He was the subject of endless pub conversations. Was his name pronounced Kor-tow or Kow-tow and, in the build-up to the 2008 Gold Cup there was only one question on everyone's lips; Kauto or Denman?
It was racing's good fortune that he ended up with Paul Nicholls, who campaigned him aggressively and yet looked after him with such skill that he never missed a season between his debut in December 2004 and his last race in March 2012 and, of course, apart from the occasions when they were upside down, he and jockey Ruby Walsh were poetry in motion.
His final race was the 2012 Cheltenham Gold Cup when the huge Festival crowd, recognising the end of an era, broke into spontaneous and prolonged applause as Walsh pulled the veteran up at halfway.
Kauto Star was found to be in difficulties in his Berkshire paddock last Wednesday. He had sustained multiple fractures, including one at the base of his neck. He was given intensive medical treatment at the Valley Equine Hospital, but had to be put down on Monday afternoon when his condition deteriorated.
Kauto Star Factfile
Foaled March 2000
Breeding Village Star-Kauto Relka (France)
Races 41 Wins 23
Became first horse to regain the Cheltenham Gold Cup (2007, 2009)
Won King George VI Chase five times (2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2011)
Won Betfair Chase four times (2006, 2007, 2009, 2011)
Won Ascot Chase (2008)
Won Champion Chase (2008, 2010)
Prize money £2.4m