Kauto is still a distance from winning hearts of the public
Nicholls' superstar may never eclipse Desert Orchid in the minds of some, writes Greg Wood
Ginger McCain, the trainer of Red Rum, recalled in his autobiography that there was one request for an appearance by his horse that could not be refused. Dozens of invitations arrived in the post every month, but when Blackpool asked Red Rum to turn on the illuminations, McCain didn't think twice.
"On the night," McCain wrote, "he went into the Town Hall and walked up a big, wide flight of stairs. Ten thousand people were howling and shouting when they caught sight of him. I led him through a beam of light, and as he passed, the skyline lit up."
Celebrity can be a baseless currency these days, but Red Rum had plenty when it was still on the gold standard. Desert Orchid did too, back in the late 1980s when he won the King George VI Chase on four St Stephen's Days. Yet in tomorrow's King George VI Chase Kauto Star will, weather permitting, start favourite to outdo even Desert Orchid and win the race for a fifth time, and it seems that the wider world won't even notice.
Kauto Star is, according to the official figures, the best steeplechaser since Arkle in the mid-1960s. He won last year's King George by a distance, which is racing-speak for "so far it's not worth counting". As well as four King Georges, he has won the Cheltenham Gold Cup twice, and 17 of his 25 starts over fences in all. He once got within a short-head of victory despite losing his jockey at the second-last and being remounted.
But if you stop people in the high street, there will still be more who have heard of Red Rum or Desert Orchid, whose careers unfolded at least a generation ago. It takes a rare animal and -- more importantly -- a rare set of circumstances if a racehorse is to leave a lasting mark on the general public's consciousness. And so far, Kauto Star's brilliance as a racehorse has not been enough.
Simon Sherwood, who rode Desert Orchid to win the Gold Cup and his first two King Georges, sees some important differences between the two chasers. "Kauto Star's achievements are unbelievable," Sherwood says, "but people just relate a lot to grey horses and to front-runners. Don't forget either that Desert Orchid came out every single season and ran seven or eight times a year. He was always there, with his ears pricked out in front, laying it down to the rest, jumping from fence to fence and saying, 'come and get me if you can'. That's what people loved about him.
"And in terms of his breeding and background, he was a freak too. He came from a field in Leicestershire, from a fairly moderate mother and a sire who should have been getting five-furlong sprinters. The Burridge family [Desert Orchid's owners] enjoyed that, and the theatre of the whole thing. Kauto Star is different, in that he had a reputation in France, and was bought to race in England for quite a lot of money. He was slightly teed-up. People love horses who start from the basics and then reach the heights. Kauto Star arrived as a prince, and went on to be a king."
Throughout racing history, there have been racehorses that could reach out and grab the attention of a nation. They did not need to win every time -- though of course, a regular trip to the payout window helps -- but there was something about them, or the times that they were racing in, that set them apart. Recessions have a habit of producing equine heroes, but they are often horses that make a particular virtue of defying the odds.
"It's fair to say that Kauto Star hasn't reached the hearts of the public in the way that Desert Orchid did," Andrew Franklin, now -- as then -- the executive producer of Channel 4 Racing says. "And that's not his fault, because he's probably the better horse, and if he can win the King George for a fifth time it will be extraordinary. You have to go back to Golden Miller [which won five Gold Cups in the 1930s] to find anything to compare with it.
"There are some obvious reasons why he doesn't connect in the same way, in that he's not grey and he's not a front-runner, but the other thing that he hasn't done, which Arkle also managed to do, is to give weight away in big handicaps.
"It makes you more of a hero if you can do that. I think Denman's exploits [under big weights] in the Hennessy have been the most exciting races outside the Cheltenham Festival in recent times. It is a missing feature from Kauto Star's CV."
These are different times in the media, too. Red Rum won his Nationals when there were only three TV channels in Britain and everybody was watching the same one on Saturday afternoon. There were still only four stations when Desert Orchid was in his prime, and the King George card from Kempton was the only televised sporting action across the water on December 26.
And in an age when the shelf-life of fame has never been shorter, Kauto Star generally appears three times a season. When Desert Orchid was racing, by contrast, his next race was rarely more than three weeks away. He was so busy that no one had the chance to forget about him. As Franklin says: "It may be anecdotal, but to my mind, there's a real reduction in the number of times that horses run. There seems to be so many that are just put away after Christmas to wait for the [Cheltenham] Festival."
Such are the variables that have conspired to keep Kauto Star, the best steeplechaser since Arkle, away from the centre of public attention. He is brilliant but, for many sports fans, an unknown. He may shift Desert Orchid from the record books tomorrow, but he will never replace the grey horse in their hearts. And the Blackpool illuminations will have to wait.
Sunday Indo Sport