Ahead of Saturday's Betfair Chase at Haydock, we revisit the essay on Kauto Star from the 2011-12 Chasers & Hurdlers following his tremendous victory in the 2011 Betfair.
Mankind marvels at perfection but it doesn't always like its sporting idols to be too pure.
The warmest are often reserved for the great champion who comes back, especially for a champion who hauls his way to the top again after being written off by some. The fact that the twentieth century's most recognisable athlete Muhammad Ali regained the WBA (oldest of the championship bodies) world heavyweight title three times contributed as much to his legacy as did the appreciation of his ability and dazzling skills at the peak of his powers.
Ali was sometimes a controversial figure but he defeated every other top heavyweight in a golden era for boxing in the sixties and seventies. His seventieth birthday two months after the death in November of Joe Frazier gave the media a chance to recall some of the historic fights in which he was involved. The Greatest first won the WBA title at the age of twenty-two, causing a big upset when beating Sonny Liston, after which he was promptly stripped of the title for agreeing an unsanctioned rematch (which he also won).
After regaining the WBA title three years later by beating Ernie Terrell, Ali was then stripped of the crown again - and his other titles - for refusing to be drafted into the American army at the time of the Vietnam war, legal battles keeping him out of the ring for over three years.
After his comeback, Ali lost a title challenge (dubbed the Fight of The Century') on points against the then champion Frazier - both were still undefeated at the time - before regaining the WBA title for the second time. At the age of thirty-two, when again an underdog, he knocked out George Foreman, who was unbeaten in forty professional fights, in one of which he had needed only two rounds to take the title from Frazier (Ali won a non-title rematch with Frazier on points before facing Foreman, and then, after regaining the title, stopped Frazier in a punishing third fight between them which lived up to its billing as The Thrilla In Manilla').
After ten successful defences, Ali lost his WBA title (at the age of thirty-six) for the only time in the ring to Leon Spinks in 1978. He won it back from Spinks seven months later but did not defend again, announcing his retirement the following year. Ali did return, though, after a two-year absence, for two further fights, both of which he lost badly when clearly well past his best, the final one a month before his fortieth birthday. Ali's last two defeats were among only five in sixty-one professional fights.
Kauto Star's reputation as the finest steeplechaser of his time - and probably the best for more than forty years - was already secure before the latest season.
A record-equalling four victories in the King George VI Chase and two in the Cheltenham Gold Cup (becoming the first horse to regain the crown after losing it) included the best performances in both those races since the 'sixties. Kauto Star's thirteen-length victory over Denman in the 2009 Gold Cup represented, without much doubt, the best form shown in the race since the days of Arkle. Kauto Star then crushed his rivals by a distance in the King George VI Chase later the same year, repeating the achievement of Arkle in the same race forty-four years earlier (the pair are the only horses to have won the King George by 'a distance' which used to be the official return for anything greater than thirty lengths).
Kauto Star achieved a Timeform rating of 191 at his zenith but, by the end of the 2010/11 season, he appeared to be losing his aura. He recorded a fourteenth Grade 1 victory at Down Royal in the JNwine.com Champion Chase but managed only third in the King George VI Chase before filling the same place in a vintage Cheltenham Gold Cup, both of those races won by the impressive six-year-old Long Run whose performances seemed to confirm the changing of the guard at the top of steeplechasing.
There were calls in some quarters for Kauto Star to be retired after his defeat in the King George - he was beaten twelve lengths and seven by Long Run and Riverside Theatre, not travelling or jumping with his trademark fluency - and the calls were renewed when Kauto Star was pulled up in the Punchestown Gold Cup, which took place shortly after the end of the British season.
It has become a sporting cliche that the ability to come back from defeat marks a great champion. If it is true, then Kauto Star enhanced his reputation in his latest campaign and the comeback story that unfolded will feature strongly in the legend that is passed down.
Any idea that Kauto Star might resume his reign as king of the steeplechasers after slipping right down the rankings in 2010/11 must have seemed fanciful to all but his most optimistic supporters. Even those closest to Kauto Star had their doubts, illustrated by the fact that it was decided to have Kauto Star fully tuned up ahead of his reappearance in the Betfair Chase at Haydock in November, a race in which he squared up to Long Run for a third time.
Kauto Star was attempting a fourth win in the Betfair, before which trainer Paul Nicholls announced that Kauto Star was 'fitter than I have ever had him at this stage of the season... Long Run [making his seasonal debut] might not be cherry ripe, but there will be no excuses from our side, if Kauto Star runs moderately then I suspect he will be retired.'
Kauto Star's three victories in the Betfair Chase had come at the chief expense of Beef Or Salmon, Exotic Dancer and Imperial Commander respectively. Kauto Star started at 11/10, 5/4-on and 6/4-on, and he was 5/2-on when unseating his rider (but for which he might well have won) at the final fence in Snoopy Loopy's year.
Before the latest Betfair Chase, Kauto Star had, in fact, started favourite or joint favourite on all except two of his twenty-eight starts for the Nicholls stable (the exceptions being when second favourite in the Haldon Gold Cup at Exeter as a five-year-old and when third favourite behind Long Run and Imperial Commander in the most recent edition of the Cheltenham Gold Cup).
The betting on the six-runner Betfair Chase was: 6/5 Long Run, 7/2 Diamond Harry, 6/1 Time For Rupert and Kauto Star, 7/1 Weird Al and 66/1 Pure Faith. Kauto Star's odds were the longest for any of the thirty-one races he has so far contested over eight seasons since joining Nicholls.
Kauto Star's odds at Haydock reflected the general feeling that he was on the decline, and perhaps very close to being pensioned off. His display in the race was a revelation, showing that, even in the autumn of his career he was anything but a back number.
Kauto Star comprehensively despatched five opponents at Haydock, not to mention his critics, forcing the pace (different tactics to usual) and jumping impeccably before seeing off the gritty challenge of Long Run in the home straight to beat him, going away on the run-in by eight lengths with Weird Al (winner of the Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby) a further two lengths behind in third.
Long Run may not have been primed for the day but his effort was good enough, despite a couple of costly mistakes, to win an average renewal of the Betfair Chase. As for the former champion Kauto Star, it was his best performance for nearly two years, since his breathtaking display in the 2009 King George VI Chase, and just about the best of his four winning efforts in the Betfair Chase.
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It was one thing to turn back the clock in the Betfair Chase against an opponent who was almost certainly not at concert pitch, but it would surely be much tougher for Kauto Star in the King George VI Chase, the widely acknowledged mid-season championship for the staying chasers, though it is worth less than the Betfair Chase.
Kauto Star's trainer confessed to being speechless after his Haydock victory, while jockey Ruby Walsh, who had hoped beforehand that "there might be one more big day in him", was genuinely overjoyed afterwards, confessing to being "so glad I chose to come here and not Ascot."
Master Minded, in the same ownership as Kauto Star and considered beforehand to be the stable's number-one King George hope, won the Amlin 1965 Chase at Ascot for the second successive year.
Kauto Star had been at 16/1 in the ante-post betting on the King George VI Chase before he ran at Haydock and connections did not immediately commit him to Kempton.
"We had him primed for the Betfair and everyone has got to be a bit patient,' said Paul Nicholls.
"If I am not happy with him at Christmas, I assume we will go for the Gold Cup."
In the end, both Kauto Star and Master Minded contested the William Hill King George VI Chase, starting second and third favourite respectively at 3/1 and 11/2 behind even-money favourite Long Run who had youth on his side as well as having been trained primarily with Kempton in mind (Kauto Star had started 7/4-on and Long Run 9/2 eleven months earlier when the race had to be rescheduled because of bad weather).
Ruby Walsh chose to ride Kauto Star rather than Master Minded, a dual Queen Mother Champion Chase winner who deserved his chance to show whether he stayed three miles.
The King George, however, turned into a bitter-sweet affair for the connections of Kauto Star and Master Minded, the latter suffering a serious tendon injury and being pulled up, his racing career almost certainly at an end, though, thankfully, his life was saved with an operation performed the same evening by one of the world's leading vets, Ian Wright, after Master Minded was transferred by horse ambulance from Kempton to Newmarket.
Master Minded's plight obviously took some of the gloss off a magnificent day for Kauto Star. His impressive appearance and relaxed demeanour in the paddock before the King George were in marked contrast to the previous year when he failed to take the eye and seemed ill at ease (he bled out of both nostrils after that race).
As well as Long Run and Master Minded, Kauto Star's opponents included the previous season's Arkle winner Captain Chris and the high-class pair Somersby, runner-up to Master Minded at Ascot, and Nacarat, who has a particularly good record at Kempton; the line-up was completed by 66/1-shot Golan Way.
Ridden for stamina, as at Haydock, Kauto Star was in front before halfway and began to stretch the field after the twelfth of the eighteen fences. His faultless jumping was again an asset and he was four or five lengths clear approaching the third last, still moving fluently while Long Run couldn't quite match his jumping and was beginning to struggle to keep up.
Kauto Star maintained the gallop in the home straight and always had the measure of Long Run who was, nonetheless, closing strongly towards the finish. Kauto Star held him off by a length and a quarter to become the first horse to win the King George VI Chase five times, surpassing the record he had previously shared with Desert Orchid.
Desert Orchid was one of five winners before Kauto Star to regain the King George crown after losing it (Halloween, Mandarin, Wayward Lad and See More Business, were the others) but Kauto Star is the only horse who has regained both the Gold Cup and the King George.
The only other horse apart from Kanto Star to win a top level race over jumps in Britain five times is Golden Miller who won the Cheltenham Gold Cup five years in a row in the 'thirties (Al Capone Il won seven consecutive editions of the Prix La Haye Jousselin at Auteuil in the 'nineties, and, more recently, the American chaser McDynamo won the Breeders' Cup Grand National Chase at Far Hills five times in a row).
Kauto Star's victory over Long Run at Kempton ranks among his top half-dozen performances on Timeform ratings, with the pair finishing a long way ahead of their rivals. Captain Chris was seventeen lengths behind Long Run at the line, holding off Somersby for third place by half a length, with Nacarat the only other finisher.
Acknowledging the significance of the victory, Walsh paraded Kauto Star back in front of the ecstatic near sell-out Kempton crowd of 22,000 (the Channel 4 audience peaked at 1.5m) before returning the winner's enclosure. There wasn't much doubt that Kauto Star was a different horse to the previous season and was right back to something like his best.
'He has looked fantastic this season and seems better in himself. Last year he bled here and was out on his feet at the end, be he's come in this time and is not even having a blow," said his trainer afterwards. 'He can't have been right last year and, in hindsight, I think it might have taken him last season to get over that horrific fall in Imperial Commander's Gold Cup.'
Nicholls also alluded to a minor breathing problem that has affected Kauto Star from time to time in his career - he has always worn a tongue strap for Nicholls - which, after causing intermittent concern in the previous season, had not affected the horse since.
While rejuvenated Kauto Star rode the crest of the wave in the first half of the season, his luck changed after his preparation was stepped up for a sixth appearance in the Cheltenham Gold Cup (the same number as Golden Miller and one behind The Dikler's record).
Kauto Star wasn't seen out between Kempton and Cheltenham, during which period Long Run remained at the head of the ante-post betting on the Gold Cup, the extra distance of that race thought likely to be in his favour. Updates on Kauto Star's progress towards Cheltenham appeared regularly in his trainer's Betfair column, including an entry published on Saturday February 25th in which Nicholls said: "Ruby was here on Friday morning to school some of our big guns. He schooled Kauto Star, Big Buck's, Al Ferof and Join Together to name but four and I was delighted with them all.'
Six days later, however, Nicholls recounted again through his Betfair column (the betting exchange suspending its Gold Cup and other impacted markets twenty minutes before the announcement) that Kauto Star had taken a crunching fall at an open ditch during the session with Walsh. Nicholls described the incident as 'awful', saying that Kauto Star had launched himself at the fence from too far away.
Kauto Star was sound after the fall and had continued cantering each day. Worryingly, however, Nicholls reported that head lad Clifford Baker thought Kauto Star was feeling something and regarded him as '50-50' to make it to Cheltenham.
Amazingly, in the six days between Kauto Star's tumble and the Nicholls announcement, the ante-post betting market betrayed not the slightest hint of the concerns over Kauto Star's well-being, a tribute to the team ethic and tight security at Manor Farm Stables - though the usually media-friendly Nicholls did subsequently come in for plenty of criticism over his handling of the situation. Kauto Star drifted out to 8/1 on Betfair when the markets reopened after the bulletin and all the major bookmakers pushed him out in their betting.
"We hoped he would be showing improvement by now but we're not getting the right signals from him and if we don't get a good piece of work into him by a week tomorrow then we are in trouble," said Nicholls.
Regular bulletins kept the public in the picture until Kauto Star came through a racecourse gallop at Wincanton on Friday March 9th, a week before the Gold Cup. 'If he is all right tomorrow and he schools all right on Monday, we're in business', Nicholls announced. After being schooled over six fences, Kauto Star was pronounced "back to where he was before his fall' and confirmed as a Gold Cup runner.
It was Kauto Star's seventh successive Cheltenham Festival (he fell early in the Queen Mother Champion Chase on his first appearance) but, for the first time. he was not accompanied by his illustrious stablemate Denman whose exemplary Festival record featured a Gold Cup victory and three seconds in that race, including when splitting Long Run and Kauto Star in 2011. Denman had remained in training but suffered damage to his tendon on the gallops before his planned reappearance in the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown over Christmas. The injury would have kept him off the course for the whole season and it was decided to retire him from racing, though the latest news is that it is hoped he will have an active retirement in team chasing.
With Denman missing, the latest Gold Cup was promoted as The Decider between Long Run and Kauto Star, the pair dominating the betting at 7/4 and 3/1 respectively. In the event, the race decided nothing, Kauto Star clearly not himself and failing to reach halfway, while a below-form Long Run managed only third behind Synchronised and The Giant Bolster.
Kauto Star jumped off with the leaders but lost his position after the early fences. Walsh reporting afterwards that he felt his mount might have overstretched at the water jump which is the fourth on the first circuit in the Gold Cup. Walsh said he felt Kauto Star begin to struggle going to the next. As the course announcer relayed the news that Kauto Star was being pulled up approaching the tenth fence, the crowd reacted with spontaneous applause, similar to the sympathetic reaction ten years earlier when Istabraq was pulled up after just two flights while attempting a fourth Champion Hurdle victory.
Istabraq did not race again but Kauto Star's future is not so cut and dried.
"He's fine he's not lame," Paul Nicholls reported afterwards. "We did our best to get here but he must have been affected by his schooling fall. Something inside was niggling him, but it is not until the pressure of the race that you know". Kauto Star's owner Clive Smith seemed to give a clear indication straight after the Gold Cup that Kauto Star had run his last race, but it was later confirmed that no firm decision has been taken. "These horses are a long time retired, standing out in some field, and Kauto Star loves every minute of what he does," said Paul Nicholls in the summer.
"If we are happy with him in every way when we assess him in the autumn, we could possibly look at the Betfair Chase [unlikely now as Kauto Star did not come in until the end of August] or another King George, though he wouldn't run in the Gold Cup again."
It is hard to imagine a jumps season without Kauto Star. He has been a the top in Britain for seven successive seasons in a 'golden age of steeplechasing' winning Grade 1s in all of them. It is a remarkable sequence: 2005/6 Tingle Creek; 2006/7 Betfair Chase, Tingle Creek, King George and Gold Cup; 2007/8 Betfair, King George and Ascot Chase; 2008/9 JNwine.com Champion Chase, King George and Gold Cup; 2009/10 Betfair and King George; 2010/11 JNwine.com Chase; and 2011/12 Betfair and King George.
Haydock has already commissioned a bronze statue to commemorate Kauto Star's four wins in the Betfair Chase, while Kempton - perhaps hopeful of another Christmas appearance - has announced that plans to mark Kauto Star's record-breaking achievements in the King George VI Chase after his retirement.
Kempton commissioned its famous life-sized statue of Desert Orchid, which stands alongside the paddock, while he was still racing. Unfortunately, his final appearance in the King George as a twelve-year-old ended when he hit the deck, already well beaten, at the third last. Alas, not many of the sporting greats enjoy the type of end to a glorious career that they deserve. Muhammad Ali, for example, certainly isn't the only heavyweight boxing champion who carried on for too long - probably only Gene Tunney, Rocky Marciano (retired undefeated) and Lennox Lewis can claim to have gone out 'at the top' in the championship's 130-year history.
Even if Kauto Star is not given an opportunity to go out in a blaze of glory, his 2011/12 campaign would still represent a fitting end to the career of a horse who has done more than any of his generation to promote steeplechasing to the wider public beyond the sport's diehards. A sixth King George would not be such a fanciful idea either as ignoring his Gold Cup display - Kauto Star was again the best staying chaser in training in the latest season, as he had also been in each of the four seasons before Long Run temporarily took his title (Kauto Star was also the best two-mile chaser in training during his first two seasons at the top).
Certainly, as he jogged exuberantly round the paddock in the champions parade at Sandown on the last day of the season, Kauto Star hardly looked like a horse for whom age was an issue.
Kauto Star won four of his ten races over hurdles for Serge Foucher in France, falling once, and has run in thirty-one races, all over fences, for the Nicholls stable. Of the twenty-five steeplechases he has completed without mishap (three falls or unseated, twice pulled up and once remounted), Kauto Star has won nineteen.
His prize money earnings now exceed £2.3m, and he earned a further £1m when landing the Betfair Million in the 2006/7 season, a bonus for winning the Betfair, the King George and the Gold Cup in the same season. He also earned a total of £400,000 for winning the BHA's Order of Merit in both 2006/7 and 2007/8.
He has now had eight essays (over 25,000 words) in Chasers & Hurdlers, one short of the number of essays devoted to Desert Orchid whose longevity also contributed to his making a name for himself beyond the normal boundaries of the sport.
Desert Orchid's career spanned ten seasons, and Kauto Star's will span eleven if he remains in training for 2012/13. Kauto Star passed the post first on his first four starts as a juvenile hurdler in France, though he was demoted on his debut. His first two outings came in March and April, before the end of the 2002/3 British season.
He then ran a further eight times as a juvenile and ended 2003/4 ranked second among the French juveniles behind the filly Maia Eria, his form in pattern races including victory in the Prix de Longchamp and second (to Main Eria) in the Prix Cambaceres, France's top race for three-year-old hurdlers.
Kauto Star is pictured winning the Prix de Longchamp (inflicting a shock defeat on Maia Eria) in the inaugural Timeform Top Horses In France section which appeared in Chasers & Hurdlers 2003/04. Links between French and Anglo-Irish form have become even stronger over the last decade, Long Run also among the notable British jumpers who began their career in France, where he himself won the Prix Cambaceres and the top race for four-year-old chasers, the Prix Maurice Gillois. French-breds dominated the Grade 1s at Kempton on Boxing Day. Binocular (who also began his racing career in France) successful in the Christmas Hurdle, and Grands Crus winning the Feltham Novices' Chase.
The pedigree of Kauto Star has been covered in depth on several previous occasions in Chasers & Hurdlers but there are some updates. His dam the now-deceased Kauto Relka, who was unraced, added to her tally of winners in the latest season. Kauto Stone (by With The Flow), one of the best juvenile hurdlers of his year in France and a top four-year-old chaser (successful in the Prix Maurice Gillois), won the Grade 2 ladbrokes.com Chase at Down Royal and finished second in the Tingle Creek for the Nicholls stable, and his two-years-older fairly used but temperamental brother Kauto Relko won a novice chase over two and a half miles at Bangor in April.
Kauto Relka's latest offspring to reach the racecourse, the four-year-old Kauto Grand Mogol (by Priolo), got off the mark in a bumper at Limerick in March. Kauto Relka's final foal, the three-year-old filly Kauto Tireless (by Byzantium, a son of Kauto Star's now-deceased sire Village Star), has yet to race.
The genuine Kauto Star, an angular gelding in appearance, stays three and a quarter miles and acts on soft going (he hasn't been raced on firmer than good). He wears a tongue strap, but the sheepskin noseband which he had worn for most of his races over the three previous seasons was dispensed with altogether in the latest one. When the noseband was originally refitted (he was equipped with one in the younger days in France), it was supposedly done to aid Kauto Star's concentration after he had started making the odd bad mistake.
His jumping gave not the slightest cause for concern in the latest season. He never put a foot wrong, turning in exhibition rounds at both Haydock and Kempton.