As the Albert Bartlett Supreme Novices’ Hurdle came to a thundering conclusion, the real action was taking place a couple of furlongs from the finishing line. Kauto Star, the latest horse to take a grip on the nation’s heart and the winner of two Gold Cups, and twenty-one other races of lesser distinction, was quietly making his way towards the pre-parade ring.
In the manner of a great horse, he waited until his rivals had completed their lap of the ring before making his entrance, to polite, restrained applause. Such are the allowances given to champions. Clifford Baker, who has cared for Kauto Star as you would your own child, walked with him, suited and booted for the occasion, whispering sweet nothings in his ear.
By the time Kauto Star had reached the main parade ring, Baker had been joined by the trainer Paul Nicholls, a champion in his own right, and the owner, Clive Smith, and between them they had formed a Praetorian guard. It was the horse, though, that drew the attention, his aristocratic flat-racer’s head and distinctive white blaze towering over those in close attendance.
With every stride the mighty throng applauded him. His main rival and defending champion, Long Run, was wearing ear plugs for the preliminaries, but it was only Kauto Star who was in need of them. This was Kauto Star’s sixth running in the Gold Cup and if the ravages of time had taken their toll on the twelve year old, it was not immediately apparent. He looked magnificent.
If Nicholls’ salt and pepper hair looked a little more salty than usual then there were reasons. His yard had suffered a serious bout of coughing in the run-up to the Festival and his horses, with one or two significant exceptions, were not running well. As Michael Dickinson, a remarkable trainer, who in 1983 sent home the first five in the Gold Cup, told me in the parade ring: there is nothing a trainer can do when the bugs come to visit. Just wait, hope and pray.
But there were other reasons why Nicholls would have been even more on edge than usual. The statistics, which those who demanded a fairy-tale ending had clearly ignored given that Kauto Star’s odds shortened from 5-1 to 3-1 before the off, were against him. No twelve year old in more than four decades had won this race and even the great Cool Dawn, who broke hearts here in 1998, was a mere stripling of ten in comparison.
Baker stayed behind in the parade ring, head bowed on the white railings, hands clasped, as Ruby Walsh, Kauto Star’s jockey, assumed command. Nicholls hurried off to quiet place to watch- or as is his wont, not watch. Was his and the owner’s decision to defy time was about blow up in their faces? The evidence, this year, had been mixed: pulled up, ingloriously at Punchestown in May, but then bouncing back in grand style to win at Haydock and, almost unbelievably, at Kempton on Boxing Day.
There were memories, though, etched into the Cheltenham turf, of a similar occasion. Exactly ten years ago, Istabraq, a three times winner of the Champion Hurdle, attempted to defy the clock, despite obvious signs that his jumping was on the decline and that middle age had started to bite, and his jockey, Charlie Swann had been forced to pull his mount up on the first circuit. Not a fitting way to go.
Kauto Star jumped well in the early stages and so his demise was as sudden as it was surprising. From racing easily, suddenly Walsh’s hands started to pump, sending out distress signals that all was not well. Others passed him in strides, an ignominy that, for most of his career, Kauto Star has inflicted upon others. Old age does that to you. The game was up. The affection in which this horse is held was clear from the crowd’s reaction, though. Polite, restrained applause greeted his entrance and the sentiments were exactly the same when Walsh bowed to the inevitable. I have never heard applause before for a horse that has been pulled up.
If the crowd had come to hail a champion, then they eventually got their wishes. Having been niggled along virtually through the entire race by his jockey, AP McCoy, Synchronised popped the final fence and courageously fought his way to the front. There has been no greater jump jockey in history than McCoy and along with his mount’s trainer, Jonjo O’Neill, and the owner, JP McManus, they form a triumvirate of jump racing royalty.
As for Kauto Star, whether he retires or not, he will not run in the shadow of Cleeve Hill again. Great horses come and great horses go but the memories, in Kauto Star’s case of two Gold Cups and five King George VI chases, remain.