The sun is shining and I’m determined to mine the beauty and the joy out of this day. I spent time with my sweet mares, drove round the Scottish hills to look at the snow, went to see the dear Stepfather, and then ran home to watch the racing. Many of my old friends are out today, and my heart is beating with love.
Four years ago today, I watched Kauto Star line up for the Betfair Chase. I was with the Beloved Cousin and her small children and my dear old dog, known on this blog as The Pigeon. The consensus on the day was that Kauto’s glory days were behind him. Some people were even quite cross that Paul Nicholls was running him.
I wrote about that day, and I’m reproducing it here because my memories of the bold and beautiful Kauto Star will never die. I’m thinking a lot about the people who are not here any more; that glorious horse is not here any more. I hope they are all running their race on some celestial track, with the emerald turf springy under their feet.
The story of a great race:
(There was a rather long introduction about having chard from the garden for lunch, and about my love for Master Minded, who was also running. Only then did I get to the main action, which is why the start sounds slightly abrupt.)
Kauto Star is eleven, which is old in racing years. Not geriatric, but a sure veteran. The young pretender, Long Run, had come last season and taken the Gold Cup. Worst of all, he had usurped Kauto Star’s crown in the race he had made his own, the King George at Kempton. Bear in mind Kauto is the only horse in history who had won that race four years in a row, the last time by over 30 lengths, against some of the best chasers in the country.
He is the mightiest and most beloved champion since Desert Orchid: first horse ever to win a Gold Cup, lose a Gold Cup, and come back to regain it; the first horse ever to win fourteen group one races. There was a time when he seemed almost unbeatable. In his early days, he used to put in terrifying mistakes, quite often over the last fence when it seemed as if he had everything sewn up; in his later years, he could put in exhibition rounds, making such mighty leaps that it seemed as if he had wings.
The thought was, though, that his great days were all behind him. People were muttering about retirement. Today, he was facing three tough miles, up against much younger horses, at least four of whom had big wins under their belts. He might fall, be pulled up, get tailed off; the talk was that if he did not run well today, he would be retired on the spot, and that is the last we would all see of him.
I’ll give my hero another chance, I thought. I’ll just put on a little twenty, I thought, mostly out of love. I was not sure he could do it. Long Run is a very, very good horse. I was acting on sentiment. Then I got a bit more forensic. Paul Nicholls had trained Kauto to the minute for this race; Long Run would be being saved for later in the season, and often does not run well first time out. I’ve always thought there is a little question mark over his jumping; he can go a bit flat and careless when the pressure is on.
I examined the form. There were definite drawbacks over another of the two main dangers. Damn it, I thought; this really could be Kauto’s moment. Five minutes before the race, I put on another twenty. Sod them all, I thought: my boy is not done yet.
I explained some of all this to the children. They got very excited. They watched the quick replays of his earlier triumphs that Channel Four was showing, and decided they loved him.
‘Come on Kauto,’ they said.
Off the horses went. Kauto Star was jumping very well, but almost stupidly well, standing off outside the wings. I was worried he would take too much out of himself.
The lovely Ruby Walsh, his regular jockey, took him to the lead, and kept him there. He can’t stay in front for three miles, I thought, not at his age. But he kept pinging his fences and was bowling along as if he did not have a care in the world. Ruby was so relaxed half the time he seemed to be riding with just one hand. It was delightful to see the two old pros in such perfect tune with each other.
‘Maybe he can do it,’ I said.
‘Come on, Kauto,’ cried the children.
‘No,’ I said. ‘He can’t do it. It’s too much to ask.’
But Long Run was making mistakes, and running a little ragged. Kauto was collected and foot perfect. He’ll fade, I thought. The younger fellas will come and pick him up.
Into the last four fences. I was on my feet. ‘Come on my son,’ I shouted.
‘Come on, Kauto,’ yelled the children.
The Pigeon was also on her feet, barking her head off, which is what she always does when I shout at the racing.
Three out. Kauto Star still in the lead, against all the odds. At this stage, I actually jumped onto an armchair and was bawling my head off. ‘Come on, you beauty,’ I yelled.
The Pigeon was jumping up and down on all fours.
‘Come on, come on,’ shouted the children.
The younger horses were gathering themselves for their final effort. Ruby still had not asked Kauto the question. ‘Oh, just steady,’ I shouted. ‘Just stand up.’
The great Ruby Walsh kept the old horse balanced and straight and steady, using only hands and heels, preserving all his energy for the final push. Everyone else was scrubbing away. I suddenly thought the mighty champion could do it.
Over the last, everything else faded away. Kauto was tired, but he’s not only a once in a generation talent, he’s got enormous courage. He does not give up. He just went on galloping to the line, brave and true, seven lengths in front.
The crowd went nuts. Paul Nicholls jumped in the air for joy. Ruby Walsh fell on the horse’s neck, hugging him. I was shouting and crying. The children were yelling yes, yes. The Beloved Cousin looked at me in amazement. ‘He looks as if he could go round again,’ she said.
The King was back in his castle. He walked back to the winning enclosure, his ears pricked, his head held high. The crowd gave him three cheers, twice. No one could quite believe it. It was one of the best things I ever saw in racing.
So, it went from an ordinary day to an extraordinary win from a most remarkable horse. I wish my dad had been here to see it.
My own little shining star:
Stanley the very Manly: