Posted by Tania Kindersley.
This is another of my shaggy horse stories, and very long, so you might like to get yourself and nice cup of tea and sit down. I would apologise for length, but it's Christmas, so I am giving myself the present of self-indulgence.
I grew up in a racing household. My father was a jockey, and then a trainer. This should make me less sentimental about horses, not more. We wept over horses disappointed, horses lost, horses failed. But at the same time there was a brusque, all in a day’s work attitude to the whole shooting match. I remember looking, with clinical fascination, when I was six, at the hole in the neck of a horse called Dolge Orlick. He had a breathing problem; in those days, the vets used to cut into the windpipe, and insert a silver plug. Being plugged, it was called. Looking back, I think it was quite macabre, but as a child I found it interesting, and normal.
My dad was a man who regarded racehorses as the tough, working creatures that they are. He was a hard betting man. He generally bet with head over heart, although he did have a fatal tendency to listen to the last person he met on the way to the rails. There’s a whisper for this, they would say, and Dad would throw all his morning’s studying of the form out of the window.
So it is quite odd that I have developed a passionate love for certain horses, which waxes stronger as I get older. I still sit up late at night watching my old Desert Orchid videos (so old that they are actual videos, which are practically museum pieces), and weep ancient tears of joy each time I see him win the Gold Cup against impossible odds.
The horse I love the most, just now, is Kauto Star. The regular readers will know something of this; I have written of him before. Today, he goes out to do the improbable, perhaps the impossible. He is, at the age of eleven, attempting to win his fifth King George VI chase.
The King George is the great Christmas tradition of the National Hunt world. It is second only in prestige to the Gold Cup at Cheltenham. In some ways, it is a tougher race to win. Kempton is a flatter track than Cheltenham, but this means that the horses run faster and freer. As a result, you will often see the field strung out back to Sunbury, as John Francome likes to say; there are times when even good horses get pulled up, having gone much too fast in the early stages; sometimes, only a handful of the starters actually finish. It is a classy, tough, questioning race. It requires great talent, and great stamina, and great guts.
Last year, Kauto Star, the owner of that race, got beat out of sight by a young fellow called Long Run. He had already been beaten in the Gold Cup; in his last appearance of the season, at Punchestown, he was actually pulled up, something almost unheard of for this mighty animal. Everyone said he was finished. He was too old, he had lost his enthusiasm, his majestic talent had faded. He was now a footnote, in the racing history books; a nostalgic memory of Christmasses past.
Then, in November, he came back to Haydock, for one last try. Long Run went off hot favourite; Kauto was a patronising six to one. People were even saying that his brilliant trainer, Paul Nicholls, was an idiot to run him. There was an air of crossness, that the old horse was being asked too much.
He jumped like a stag; he galloped and stayed; he had his ears pricked as if it were a joyful walk in the park. To the screaming delight of the crowd, he came back to his great glory, and won by eight easy lengths. Long Run looked ordinary, tired, prone to amateurish mistakes.
And so the debate began. The interesting thing about racing is that there are so many unknowns. It is very much like that mad Donald Rumsfeld pronouncement: there are the things we do not know we do not know. You can follow the form book religiously, and still something will trot up at 20-1, out of a clear blue sky.
Thoroughbreds are high, aristocratic creatures; they have temperaments, and delicacies. They have moods. There have been days, in the past, when the real Kauto did not show up. No one knows why. I have seen him be so good that nothing could touch him; I have seen him be pedestrian. This is why, sometimes, after a race, you will hear trainers, or jockeys, say: there are no excuses. There is just the mystery.
For some reason, the old Kauto Star came back to his glorious best that day in November. So the debate is: was that an anomaly? Did Long Run, the great, youthful challenger just need the race? Will the form book be vindicated today, and the old king relinquish his crown?
People who know, people who follow these things, are saying: head, or heart? What they mean is that in their heart they want the auld fella to have one last, valedictory, victory, but they think the young monarch will stamp his class on the thing.
I am all heart. In this, I am not my father’s child; I defy my upbringing. I want this great, old horse to win so much that I can feel it racing through my body like electricity.
As I write this, I think: why do I love him so much? I have never met him, have no connection to his yard. Paul Nicholls was not one of the trainers I knew in my young life; Ruby Walsh, his marvellous jockey, is a man I have never encountered.
It is all about the horse. I love him because he is beautiful. I love him because he often races with his ears pricked, which is quite rare. I love him because he can jump so outrageously that it makes you catch your breath. I love him, at the same time, because I have seen him make crashing mistakes and still stand up. He is a very well balanced horse; what this means is that he can commit an error which would bring anyone else down, but he somehow finds a fifth leg.
There is something else too. Sometimes, with very talented horses, when things do not go their way, they fold under pressure. This sounds slightly counter-intuitive, but it is true. It is a bit like humans; those who are brilliant at something are often not grafters, because they never have to be. They are not trained in it; things come too easily to them; there is no muscle memory of scrabbling and scraping. But I have seen Kauto Star fight, through the mud, under great challenge. I have seen him stick his damn neck out in the closest of finishes and refuse to give up. For all his perfect conformation, he’s not just a show pony. He’s a battler. I think perhaps I love him for that most of all.
My head says: that day at Haydock was his last great glory day. It is too much to hope that he could smash all records, defy the experts, rewrite the history books. The young fella has everything on his side: the form, the age, his own considerable talent. On top of this, racing is such an imponderable business, there is quite likely the possibility that some rank outsider should come and steal the crown. When Desert Orchid first won this race, he was 16-1; everyone who knew anything said he would not stay. To the utter amazement of the experts, he jumped out in front, tore along like a child off to a party, and never came back to his field.
And beyond all that there is what the old boys call luck in running. This means: no one bumps into you, squeezes you out of the rails, causes a traffic jam in front of you. There is the thing called half-lengthing. This happens when two horses are running up alongside each other. One is a half length ahead. It takes off at a fence; the one just behind takes off, instinctively, at the same time, without being in striking distance of the fence, and crashes into it. Kauto is too canny a campaigner to be caught out by such a huckster’s trick, and yet, it is always a danger.
And there is the old, old thing, that the real Kauto might not show up.
I want him to win because he is the most marvellous, complete, brave, talented racehorse I have seen since the unforgettable Desert Orchid. He is a once in a generation creature. But my low realistic mind says: if he does not do it, that’s all right too. He has given us so much joy. He has nothing left to prove. His name is already carved with pride. He has broken more records than I can count. I have cheered him home, watched Ruby’s gleaming smile, cried tears of joy.
Perhaps it is too much to ask. Perhaps all I want is for the auld fella to come home safe.
By 3.45pm, the result will be in. I shall either be literally jumping for joy, whilst The Pigeon barks her head off, or the two of us shall be stumping up the beech avenue, coming to terms with a fairy tale that could not quite come true.
Here are some lovely Kauto pictures for you.
On the left, with the great Denman on the right, photographer unknown:
Battling through the mud to beat Imperial Commander by a nose, by the Press Association:
After this year's Betfair Chase, photographer unknown:
Ruby riding with one hand, by the Press Association:
At this year's Betfair, with Long Run trying to get on terms on the right, photographer unknown:
Winning his 2009 King George, by Getty Images:
This year's Betfair. That is an eleven-year-old horse who everyone said had had his day. Watching him leap like that I think: he does not know he is past it:
I love this one, by Edward Whitaker. The lovely fella out in the field, free as a bird:
And by Tom Jenkins, loafing away in his box:
This was one of the Gold Cups, not sure which one; photographer unknown:
Another lovely shot, photographer unknown:
Ruby pats him as they win their fourth King George, photographer unknown:
With his trainer, Paul Nicholls, photographer unknown:
Right. That's enough Kauto madness. Here is a quick avenue, Pigeon and hill:
One of the Dear Readers hoped that The Pigeon would get a really, really big stick for Christmas. SHE DID:
Rather moody hill:
Well, my darlings, let's wish the old horse the best of British luck.
PS. Suddenly realised that, in all the excitement, I have not even mentioned that the lovely Master Minded is also running in this race. He is a two and two and a half mile specialist; we have not seen him stay before. There is so much attention on the Kauto-Long Run clash, that the brilliant Master Minded is almost forgotten, even by me. I am not quite convinced that he is a three miler, but who knows? He could be the one who springs the big surprise. I love him anyway, and I hope he jumps a clear round and goes well.