There’s been an awful lot of fuss about Kauto Star in the last few days. You may imagine it is a discussion about which I have thoughts. On several occasions, I sat down to write those thoughts. I grew up in racing, I am in love with the thoroughbred, I’ve been entranced by Kauto Star since he was a wild novice. It had special subject written all over it.
But then the voices rose loud and clamorous and people began taking pot shots at each other and the debate grew personal and ugly. I had a radical idea. It was: sometimes a private opinion is just that, private.
There is nothing either beautiful or useful that I can add to the argument, so I’m going to go all William Morris on your ass. (But not on your ox, obviously.)
Instead of heaping more coals on a roaring fire, I’m going to reproduce a piece I wrote about Kauto in his pomp, in his glory days, when the dancing sight of him, imperiously casting aside all-comers as he romped around Kempton on Boxing Day, galloping himself into legend, stamping that green turf as if it were his very kingdom, made me cry tears of love.
This is how I want to remember him, and this is how he lives on in my heart, and in the hearts of all those who were lucky enough to witness his glory and his grace.
He gave us joy and we remember him well.
This is the King George, Boxing Day, 2011:
Half an hour before the start, there is the first glimpse of Kauto Star, walking calmly round in his red rug. He surveys the racecourse with his head held high, as if he owns the place. My mother calls: ‘The look of eagles,’ she says.
Ruby Walsh looks tense. ‘We’re here today with a fighting chance, but we are the underdog, there’s no point pretending that we’re not.’ He smiles, a little rueful, as if he suspects this might be the last spin of the wheel. 'He’s a privilege to ride,' he says.
Long Run is the evens favourite. He looks wonderfully well: fit as a butcher’s dog, his coat gleaming, his ears pricked. The interesting thing about the two horses is that they are completely different physical types. Long Run is long and lean, with a slightly thin neck. Kauto Star is big and bonny, a strong, compact, rounded horse. He carries his head high. He has a great, strolling action, where Long Run has a quick, athletic gallop, a bit on the knee.
Parading in front of the stands, to the applause of the crowd, Kauto nods his old head as if in acknowledgement. He looks as beautiful as any equine I ever saw; he is relaxed and serene. Down at the start, he still has his ears pricked, collected as a show pony. Long Run is chewing at his bit, his ears back, impatient to get on with it. He is young, after all, and at this moment, it shows.
And, off they jump.
Kauto pricks his ears, canters to the front, on the outside. The first fence is always a sign. Kauto Star sails over it. Quickly to the second, he puts in two long strides and stands off a mile, quite effortless. Round the first bend, he starts carrying his tail high, like a flag. Lobbing along on the outside, he takes the next two neatly and easily.
Then comes the open ditch. I have stood in an open ditch, and looked up to the stiff birch towering over my head. They are about six feet across and almost five feet high, fearsome obstacles, especially to take when galloping at thirty miles an hour.
Kauto Star sails over it.
All great champions have their signatures. With Desert Orchid, it was his outrageous standing off, sometimes outside the wings, and his habit of tearing along in front. With Frankel, this season, it is his dancing, raking stride.
With Kauto Star it is this sailing thing. When he meets a fence just right, and arcs high over it, it is as if, for a moment, he defies the laws of physics. There is a split second when it almost appears as if he has gone into slow motion, as if someone has pressed pause. His other brilliance is that he can jump very big and lose no ground in running. He jumps, as the racing people say, out of his stride, and at this moment, the stride is a perfect one.
On he goes, to the next plain fence. Another sail. He is almost in the lead now, and has fallen into a lively, bouncing gallop, something joyful in it. One should not get too anthropomorphic, but at this stage in the race, he looks happy. If horses could smile, he would be smiling.
Round the next bend and into the straight, Kauto puts in another immaculate jump. Ruby is sitting very still on him, with a tight rein. Long Run is three lengths back, doing nothing wrong.
As he approaches the stands for the first time, Kauto Star pricks up his old ears and puts in an exhibition leap, flicking his heels up into the air behind him, as if to say: here is your Christmas present. ‘What a jump,’ says Simon Holt, who is calling the race. Kauto raises his head, and goes to the lead.
At the fence which will be the last next time round, Ruby sees a stride from way out, the horse makes a streaming, flying leap, and the crowd starts to holler and roar. ‘They’re getting a tremendous cheer,’ cries the commentator. ‘Cheers and applause.’ Kauto flicks his left ear back towards the noise. As I have watched the race again and again, I have wondered: can they hear that, the horses, out on the track? Does the auld fella think, in his horsey old head: that’s for me?
Behind him, Long Run has no such sentimental thoughts. His head is down, his ears are back; he looks dogged and determined.
And off they go, out into the country again, with nine huge fences still to jump. Kauto is bouncing along, on the outside of dear old Nacarat, the front-running grey, still looking as if he is having more fun than anyone else.
At the next, he comes as close as he has so far to making a mistake. It’s not really an error, it’s just he gets in a bit tight. This is not a sail; this is just a working jump, no poetry about it. It does not stop him in running though, and he keeps right on with the wonderful rhythmic stride which Ruby has got him into.
At the next, another open ditch, it is as if Kauto thinks to himself: well, that last one wasn’t so pretty; now I shall show you how it is done. He takes off a stride too soon, and lands as far out on the other side. It is the kind of thing that makes you gasp, every time you watch it.
At the next bend, something interesting happens. Ruby has not moved an inch on Kauto Star; the reins are still tight. But old Kauto gathers himself and seems to put an extra spring in his step. I remember watching a film about Desert Orchid once, when Simon Sherwood, his jockey, said something like: ‘I said to him, come on, we’ve done enough poncing about, time for business, mate.’ It is as if, with seven to go, Kauto thinks to himself, without being told, it’s time for business. He pricks his ears, lengthens his stride, and dances past Nacarat.
It’s another perfect, high, sailing jump at the next, and now Kauto is out in the lead. Here is another new thing about the horse in his old age. In his younger days, he used to be covered up a bit; he’d go along in mid division, and Ruby would worry about getting to the front too soon. Sometimes he had to, because the horse was going so well, but it was never considered an ideal tactic.
Apart from the real, instinctive front-runners, like Desert Orchid, who always put his ears back in fury if anything headed him, most horses do not like being out on their own for long. I’ve never heard it actually said, but I assume it’s a ancient herd instinct thing; most of them need something to chase. This bold, prominent style is a new thing for Kauto, and it paid off magnificently in his last win at Haydock. It is also a joy to watch.
But it is a risk. It’s asking an awful lot of a chaser to be up at the sharp end for three long, hard miles. At this stage though, Kauto looks as if it is all he wants; just the clear blue sky and the straight green sward in front of him, and he gallops over it as if it is his spiritual home.
Six out, and a good, efficient jump, nothing showy about it. Ruby has a quick look under his arm, to see the white noseband of Long Run looming up behind him. But Kauto is full of running, and the young champion gets a slap down the neck, to remind him to go about his business. ‘Kauto Star is turning the screw,’ cries Simon Holt, his voice rising with the excitement of the thing.
Five out: a magnificent leap. Long Run is not quite so fluent behind, and Sam Waley-Cohen is having to ride him now. Kauto is now galloping a double handful, well within himself.
Four out: a good, unshowy jump. All business, mate. Kauto runs on, still beautifully balanced, his stride long and true. Long Run, in second now, looks a tiny bit out of kilter, scrabbling a little. Sam Waley-Cohen starts riding him hard, pushing away, the reins flapping.
By contrast, two lengths in front, Ruby still has a tight rein, his hands firm and still on Kauto’s neck. The camera comes in for a close-up, and you can see the hard quality of the gallop. Simon Holt’s voice has risen: ‘It’s familiar territory to the horse in front.’
On the final bend, Kauto eases away from the field. Long Run looks in trouble, three lengths behind. I suddenly think the auld fella is going to win by a mile. He is just not stopping; the farther they go, the farther he gallops. But there are still three fences to go; Long Run has won this race and a Gold Cup, and is no mug; and the eleven-year-old has been out in front for a long time. He could make a mistake, get tired, pack up.
Coming into the straight, Ruby lets out the reins for the first time. I notice what beautiful hands he has. In racing speak, this means not finely shaped fingers, but the kind of hands which are gentle on a horse’s mouth, which can feel the horse, which can send and receive signals down the reins. It’s a bit hard to explain, but it’s a lovely gift, and not something all jump jockeys have.
It’s the first time he has had to ask Kauto any kind of question. It’s a mild question, a little shake-up. The horse responds with a perfect, neat, collected jump. He is running straight, which is always a good sign at this stage of a race. When they get tired, horses can wander about a bit. Kauto still looks full of running.
At the second last, he pricks his ears. ‘Another perfect jump,’ shouts Simon Holt. Behind him, Long Run is a bit ragged, and Sam Waley-Cohen has to concentrate to pull the horse together as they land.
There’s one to go. Everything else is going backwards. Ruby is riding Kauto Star seriously now, with hands and heels. Behind him, three lengths back, Long Run will not go away. Will the years tell? Will Kauto bash the last, as he has sometimes done in the past? The crowd is going nuts. ‘He’s being ROARED on,’ shouts Simon Holt, roaring himself.
They are going flat out now. Anything less than pinpoint accuracy will lead to disaster. Kauto raises his head, collects himself, measures one, two, three strides, takes off at the sweet spot, and soars over the last, Ruby’s head almost on his neck as they take flight together, man and animal in perfect harmony.
In mid air, Kauto stretches out his hind legs, and almost gives the fence a little slap, as if in salute to the obstacle. He lands quite perfectly. Pausing the tape now, as I write this, I see the ideal racehorse, all his muscles stretched and defined, his front legs carving the air like scythes, his tail flying like a flag. Behind him, Long Run, who has made a bit of a bosh of the fence, has put down all wrong, his back legs in a tangle, and his jockey has had to lean right back in the saddle so as not to get unshipped.
But it’s not over yet. That mighty leap at the last should have been enough to seal it; Long Run’s mistake should have cooked his goose. High credit to the young pretender; his wins last year were not flukes. He is talented, and determined, and he has been brought to a peak of fitness. He picks himself up, and gets galloping again. Kauto is still going well, but Long Run is finishing like a freight train. This is an incredibly impressive thing to watch, after three long miles, and 19 fences.
It was at this point, watching the race for the first time, when I still did not know what would happen, that I was shouting and screaming and jumping up and down on the sofa. ‘Come on you beauty,’ I was yelling. ‘Hold on, hold on. Come on, my son.’
‘Kauto Star by two lengths,’ shouts Simon Holt. He is having to yell his head off to be heard over the howls of the crowd. ‘Long Run is getting to him.’
Where is the bloody finishing post? I think. The crowd is sending up a noise I’m not sure I ever heard before. Ruby has his head down; he does not use the whip. He just rides the old beauty out for all he is worth, in complete rhythm with the horse, keeping him straight and true. Long Run is closing all the time.
‘Kauto Star, can he be the king of kings?’ shouts Simon Holt.
And suddenly, I know he can be. He is not just brilliant, he is courageous and genuine. He does not give up. He keeps galloping, all the way to the line, and flashes past in front, with a dogged Long Run only a length and a half behind.
‘Kauto Star, a sporting sensation,’ shouts Simon Holt, his voice hoarse with emotion.
Ruby stands up in his stirrups, punches the air, his face split into a smile of delight, and slight disbelief. The horse, as if knowing what he has done, pricks up his ears, and falls into a relaxed, rolling canter, as the cheers of delight buffet about the grandstand.
The crowd is throwing hats, papers, racecards, into the air. The beaten jockeys crowd around Ruby Walsh, shaking his hand, slapping his back, leaning down to pat Kauto on the neck. They might have lost, but they know what this sport is all about; they know a legend when they see one, and they are gentlemanlike enough to want to salute him.
There is a great sporting tradition in National Hunt racing ; one of the first things Kauto’s trainer, Paul Nicholls, did after the race was to shake the hands of his vanquished rivals, and say, with complete sincerity: ‘Well done.’ He meant it. Long Run and Sam Waley-Cohen made it a magnificent race, and nothing should be taken from them in defeat.
I have had my doubts about how good Long Run really is, but seeing him battle to the line like that, just refusing to admit he was beat, made me tip my hat in respect.
It was not his fault. He came up against one of the best horses of the last fifty years, in his majestic pomp, a horse who was loving his work, who did not put a foot wrong, who was racing on a track he adores, in front of massed crowds cheering him home until their throats were sore.
The rest of the field was seventeen lengths behind, and they were not window dressing. They were good, tough horses. If Kauto had not been there, Long Run would have won that grade one chase by seventeen lengths, in a canter.
There are three things I think about that race, which is one of the best I ever saw. One is that Kauto Star mostly won it with his jumping. When Long Run comes under pressure, his jumping falls apart, just a bit. He does not make catastrophic errors, but he goes flat, bashes through the birch, has to get himself back together. It is to his credit that he can whack a fence and still keep on running.
But Kauto Star was foot perfect. If you are being strict, you can say he was a bit close to the first fence round the back, but that was it. Everything else was right on song. Some of the leaps were prodigious, the kind you don’t forget. It was an amazing privilege to watch the eleven-year-old veteran, literally jumping for joy.
The second is: as John Francome said, he can go over two, he can go over three; he can go on good, he can go on soft; he can go left, he can go right. As someone added, a couple of days later: he can go up, he can go down. Quite frankly, at this stage, you would believe it if someone told you he could fly. The remarkable thing about this horse is his versatility. The remarkable thing about his training team is that they have kept him galloping over all those distances, in all those conditions, for all those years. Just keeping a horse sound over six seasons is a feat of training; to keep him at the top of the game is extraordinary.
The third is: in a way, a length and a half doesn’t do justice to the thing. It was very exciting and thrilling and everything, but what I mean is that the triumph was easier than that margin suggests. Kauto won his last King George by a distance, which basically means so damn far the stewards can’t be fagged to count. Someone later calculated it was thirty-five lengths. I think his last Gold Cup was about fifteen lengths; he cantered away with it, anyway.
This one sounds less imperious, more hard-scrabble. When it’s a length and a half, people can say: oh well, if the winning post had come a few yards later, or if only Long Run had jumped the last, or if Kauto Star had hit it, it would be a different story. The jumping did probably win it, but there was something else too.
Long Run was never going to catch the horse in front. Kauto Star and Ruby Walsh are two canny campaigners; they did just what they needed to. It was a close finish, but it was a definitive one. I think Kauto Star had that race won on the final bend. I think, in the end, it was that joyous, relentless, rhythmic gallop that did it. It never faltered. It was the gallop of a horse with the heart of a lion.
So there you are, my darlings. It was absurdly long, but I chose not to edit it down. That horse deserves every damn word. He was a shining star, and I may not see his like again.
I’m going to be good and obey copyright rules and not naughtily pinch one of Edward Whitaker’s majestic photographs. Here is my own shining star instead. She never won anything, except the perpetual challenge cup of my own heart, which she is awarded every day.