Kauto Star is dead.
Those are four heavy words to write. I never even met the bold beauty, yet, as so many people in racing did, I loved him as if he were my own. There are mighty horses that come along once in a generation, that have a sprinkle of stardust about them, that gallop straight to the heart. Kauto Star was such a horse.
For years, I tried to work out what it was about him that was so thrilling, so visceral, so lovable. I think it was because he had it all. He had dash and power, a supreme natural talent, and, in the early days, a rather terrifying and exhilarating recklessness. He sometimes seemed to be having a little joke with the crowd, ploughing through the last fence, miraculously finding a fifth leg, before picking himself up and storming to the line. He had a lilting exuberance, a dancing stride, a joy in him, as if he really loved his job.
But he had dour courage as well. I’ve seen him win on the bridle, as he liked, leaving good horses floundering in his wake, and I’ve seen him put his head down and scrap through the mud and the rain, straining every sinew to get his nose in front, his will to win gleaming through the gloom and the murk. He could shine like the sun, and he could fight like a tiger.
His partnership with Ruby Walsh was one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen in racing. They had a harmony and communion and understanding which is rare and glorious. They knew each other and they liked each other. ‘Ah,’ said Ruby, that hardened professional, on live television, to an audience of millions, ‘I love him.’
He was the beating heart of Ditcheat, ridden every day by his devoted Clifford Baker, loved and cherished and honed by a remarkable team, who kept him sound and kept him fresh and kept him loving his job. To bring any horse back, season after season, with all the physical and mental demands on those fragile legs and those sensitive thoroughbred minds, is something. To keep them winning at the highest level is an achievement beyond compare. Paul Nicholls deserves every single superlative in the book.
Kauto Star was as handsome and filled with charisma as an old school film star, and like any great presence, he knew how to please a crowd. He did it in so many different ways, whether it was becoming the first horse to regain a Gold Cup, or dancing to his fourth King George victory by an imperious distance (which means so many lengths that the officials could not be bothered to count), or, in perhaps his most moving and stirring moment, coming back when everyone had written the old boy off to win his fourth Betfair Chase at Haydock. There really was not a dry eye in the house on that grey afternoon.
He had that extra indefinable something which the great ones have, what my mother calls the look of eagles. Arkle had it, and Frankel had it, and Desert Orchid had it. Horses are flight animals, easily alarmed by noise, but when Ruby Walsh would canter Kauto down in front of the stands after a majestic victory, with shouts and cheers ringing out into the winter air, the bonny champion would lift his head and turn his intelligent eye on the roaring thousands as if knowing that it was all for him. Pride is a human word, but I think he felt it.
Very few horses go beyond the racing world. But Kauto Star, with one of those mighty, streaming leaps, the ones when he took off outside the wings and landed as far out the other side, jumped from the back pages to the national headlines. For years, he was the perfect Christmas present, soaring round Kempton as if it were his spiritual home. His relentless, rhythmic gallop rattled into the minds and hearts of many people who hardly knew one end of a horse from another. But they knew brilliance and beauty when they saw it; they knew class and guts and glory. He was a supreme athlete, but he was also a great character, his bright, white face recognisable and beloved the length and breadth of these islands.
Like any storied character, he had his troubles, but he always came back. There seemed something indestructible about him. There were no doubters he could not defy, no fence he could not jump, no record he could not smash, no peak he could not scale.
It turns out, after all, that he was destructible. One freak field accident, and a superlative equine hero is brought to dust.
It was a privilege to have seen him. He gave me more joy than I can express. I loved him with that pure love I always feel in the presence of greatness. It is all sunshine in Scotland today, but it feels as if a light has gone out.
He has gone to run another race, somewhere we cannot follow him. I hope he has springy green turf under his feet and the wind in his mane and the echo of those adoring crowds in his dear old ears, as he passes his final winning post.
Just one photograph today. I cannot show you a picture of Kauto, because I am strict about copyright. You can find wonderful shots of him all over the internet, many of them taken by the exceptional Edward Whitaker. Here is a picture of my blue hills instead. These hills are my cathedral. Whenever anyone I love dies, I commit them to the hills. The Scottish mountains were here for millions of years before I was thought of, and shall stand for millions of years after I have gone. I find a curious consolation in that, and a sense of peace and perspective.
PS. As I finished writing this, and was about to press publish, I had to go back to the internet, just to check. My magical mind was saying: it must be a mistake. The big fella cannot possibly be gone. But he is, and so I make my farewell. He will live on in my heart, and in those precious memories which no amount of time can erase.