Majestic Kauto the brightest Star to light up sport of kings
The death of Paul Nicholls' Cheltenham Gold Cup hero struck a poignant and very personal note
In the instant it took Kauto Star and Ruby Walsh to cross the Cheltenham winning line at the end of the 2009 Gold Cup, creating racing history by becoming the first horse to regain the Gold Cup, I knew where I had to go.
Around me surged 65,000 others, many with the same idea, but they would not prevent me from reaching my destination. It was my first time at Cheltenham, a place I had dreamed of visiting since I was a child. I had chosen Friday to make the pilgrimage with my father for one reason only - to see Kauto Star. For a girl whose love of horses dominates her earliest memories, horses of all shapes, sizes and talents have been loved and adored but none so much as this French gelding with the limitless jump and the courage to never know when he was beaten.
I abandoned my father somewhere in the massing throng and ran, jumped and pushed my way through the heaving crowd to the bottom of the steps right in front of the number one pole in the winners' enclosure as Ruby Walsh and Paul Nicholls brought Kauto Star back in triumph. The recollection of that famed Cheltenham roar still makes my hair stand on end. Amongst the myriad tributes, opinions and thoughts expressed on social media after the news broke that Kauto Star had been put down was an intriguing tweet that drew parallels between him and Muhammed Ali and the affection the sporting public had for these two, very different, icons of their games.
They were flawed, no undefeated records for either. They were fallible. They lost, made mistakes, but when everyone believed their careers were over, back they came off the ropes, swinging and fighting. Winning again. It was this ability to absorb a beating, take a punishment but come back dazzling as bright, and in Kauto Star's case, perhaps brighter than ever, that endeared them to fans.
Unbeaten records and unburnished brilliance inspire awe and admiration, but love demands giving all of yourself. Nothing stirs the heart like an old warrior reaching deep inside themselves and, whether it is through sheer defiance, the force of their will or muscles and nerves running on memory and instinct, dragging out everything that made them and recapturing the glory days everyone assumed had passed them by.
Kauto Star was decried as a spent supernova, a burned out giant when he trailed home a dismal and defeated horse at Punchestown in May 2011.
My finals were almost upon me and the volcanic eruption of stress caused by a Spanish oral exam and another in English literature left me a spent force by the time I made it to Punchestown for the Gold Cup that afternoon. It was a race I couldn't miss. Kauto Star and Denman had rolled back the years at Cheltenham in the Gold Cup, and for a few fleeting but soaring moments, the two veterans went at it toe to toe like Frazier and Ali until the much younger, faster legs of Long Run sprinted past them. I pushed through the crowds and took up a spot down by the rails, as close to the final fence as possible so I could see Kauto Star flying over the obstacles, perhaps for the last time. Leaving there, I thought it was the final time for the champion. His flame appeared to have been quenched and I, along with countless others thought that he should be retired.
The historic achievements and sheer joy he had provided throughout his career demanded a lush paddock in Ditcheat for him and Denman to live out their days in blissful contentment, teaching the youngsters in Nicholls' yard a thing or two about jumping.
When he was returned to training and entered in the Betfair Chase at Haydock six months later, murmurs of an owner unwilling to see the end of this magnificent horse were heard all over. How wrong we all were about Kauto and his connections. That Betfair Chase happened to be on my birthday. I was studying for a masters degree by now, living in a new town and waking up that Saturday morning in an empty flat, without a living soul to share the day: no family, no friends.
I've known the acute loneliness that strikes when you are surrounded by people but I don't think I've ever felt as isolated as I did that morning. I was working that night at Connacht's first home match in the Heineken Cup, against Toulouse, and spent the morning completing assignments and preparing for the end of semester exams.
In the afternoon I sat down on the cold PVC couch with trepidation gnawing at my bones, that awful pit hollowed out by anxiety in the cavity where my stomach should have been, growing larger as post time for the Betfair Chase grew nearer. The thought of watching him trail around unable to keep pace with the field, or worse still, the fear of a fatal fall the source of my unease. It is a cliché but no less true because of that, to say it was the best birthday gift I could have received watching Kauto Star and Ruby Walsh soar over those Haydock fences, a front-running performance from the gods. The spine-tingling reaction of the crowd at the track to his success, the raw, emotional response of Walsh, Nicholls and Clifford Baker, the head man at Ditcheat and the one who rode Kauto Star in his work every morning, chiming with that of the crowd in the parade ring, the Channel Four team and the audience at home. The transformative power of sport. Kempton on St Stephen's Day was a Christmas gift to show that Haydock had not been the final raging of a comet against the dying of the light but a champion reborn and rewriting racing's history yet again.
Back in his homeland of France, they called Kauto Star L'extraterestrial, the alien, the creature from outer space because of his otherworldly talent.
For me and my generation, those of us whose only knowledge of Arkle comes from black and white footage of his triumphs, the countless stories read in books and the tales told by those who were alive to witness 'Himself' and testify to his brilliance, Kauto Star has no equal.
He is the greatest we have ever seen and like Paul Nicholls, like Ruby Walsh, he is the greatest we are ever likely to see. In 50 years' time, however image is accessed or knowledge imparted, stories in some form will be told and we will speak of the days when that bright white blaze lit up the racing world and captured our hearts with the brilliance, the courage and the greatness that was Kauto Star.
STAR FACTS . . .
Foaled: March 19, 2000
Breeding: Village Star-Kauto Relka (France)
Key victories: Cheltenham Gold Cup (2007, 2009); King George VI Chase (2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2011); Betfair Chase (2006, 2007, 2009, 2011)
Prize money: £2.4m
Sunday Indo Sport