Saturday, 19 November 2016

A very remarkable thing. Or, memories of Kauto Star.

Five years ago, on a gloomy day at Haydock, something very remarkable happened. At that time I was in the aftermath of my father’s death,staying with my cousin in the south and doing things with her children, and I never could tell what day of the week it was. I was so immersed in family life that I had completely forgotten that it was the Betfair Chase and that Kauto Star was running. I’m not sure I even knew it was a Saturday.

Once I opened the paper and saw it was a day for the titans, I made the whole family watch. The youngest was three. I explained to them all about Kauto Star and his glory days and how he was getting on a bit now and people were saying he was past his best and that Long Run, the young pretender, was coming to take his crown. I explained that all horses have their time at the top and his had been glorious but that it was probably in the past. I told them that quite a lot of people were, in a slightly bossy way, saying that Paul Nicholls should retire the grand old warrior.

Interestingly, I was not in this camp. Eleven is old for a champion, but it’s not that old, and it was Kauto Star, and Nicholls wouldn’t be sending him out to disgrace himself. And then I got cross about the doubters, because I always get cross about the doubters, and I bashed twenty quid each way on for love and loyalty and the old times we had had together. I think I fully expected that he would finish second or third and I’d have a bit of a shout and get my money back.

And that was when the something remarkable happened, and it really was remarkable, and I’ve never been so glad that I wrote something down. I wrote it all down, every word, and I’m reproducing it here in memory of a great horse, perhaps one of the greatest, who made me laugh and made me cry and made me catch my breath in awe and wonder. I miss him still, as if he were an old friend, gone too soon. But nothing can take away the memory of that extraordinary day.

This is what I wrote, in 2011:

It started off as a very ordinary day. The sun was muddling through an autumn mist. The Pigeon was looking very regal. We went to watch the Godson do some riding. There was delicious chard from the garden for lunch. I am always rather amazed that anyone would have a garden with delicious chard in it.

Then, I noticed in the paper that Master-Minded and Kauto Star were both running today, at Ascot and Haydock. I have been so out of touch that I had not realised this was happening. For those of you who don’t follow National Hunt Racing, this is a bit like Vanessa Redgrave and Judi Dench appearing on stage together.

They are not only two magnificent champions, but they are real old troupers. Master Minded is not actually that old, only eight, but he’s been racing in this country since he was four, so it feels as if he is an enduring fixture.

What is interesting about him is that people have often been keen to write him off. If you look at his figures, you find an extraordinary list of victories: 13 out of 18 races in Britain won. I think it was that when he first started winning big races he did it in a way people hardly ever see. He would demolish highly talented fields as if they were a bunch of selling platers. He would jump and gallop everything into the ground with soaring disdain. He was so much better than everything else it almost felt embarrassing. He would win at Cheltenham by 19 lengths, and pull up as if he had only just gone for a mild training canter.

So it did not even take for him to get beat for people to start sucking their teeth and saying he was not really as good as all that. If he won a race by 9 lengths instead of 19, the knowing sages would nod their heads and all but tap their noses and say he was on the decline.

I’ve always stuck with Master Minded, because I haven’t seen that many horses as truly majestic as he in my lifetime, and it’s almost as if I want to reward him for that brilliance by keeping faith with him. (I’m a bit sentimental about racing, in a way of which my late father would certainly not approve; when it came to betting he was flinty as a hedge fund supremo.) As a result, I’ve lost a bit of cash on him over the years, but I’m a great believer in putting my money where my mouth is.

He lost his last race: he looked lovely on the first circuit, flat on the second, got fairly easily beaten. My twenty quid went down the drain. Never mind. I was not down-hearted. There is a thing about very great champions, a mystery, an enigma that will never quite be solved: some days, the world-beater shows up, some days, it’s just a very good horse, who can be beaten by something else on its top form. I still thought the real Master Minded would pitch up later in the season.

And then there is Kauto Star. He 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 times 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; 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’m going to give both my heroes another chance, I thought. I got distracted by children’s lunch, and did not get my bet on Master Minded on in time. Still, it was a great delight to watch him prove his knockers wrong, and trot up, back to his talented best.

Then there was an hour before Kauto. 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.

I examined the form. There were definite drawbacks over another of the two main dangers. Sod 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 too 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 started 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 heavenly 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 double from two remarkable horses. I wish my dad had been here to see it.


  1. I remember this, Tania, it was wonderful then and it's wonderful now. So wonderful too, that you are here so often again. Hope the stuff is unstuffing itself, and if it does please send the unstuffing squirrels as there's some work for them to do in my world too, xx Rachel

  2. When you get to the fifth anniversary of The Pigeon's death, please do not re-run the post you wrote. I wasn't equal to it then, and I'd be no tougher now.

    It undid me.


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