Cheltenham Gold Cup heroes: Kauto Star – ‘Without any doubt he was the horse of a lifetime’

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  • As we build-up to Cheltenham Festival week, we take a look back at one of the greatest Gold Cup winners of all time, Kauto Star, who was the only horse to regain victory in the race after a bad run in between years.

    By Julian Muscat

    The era of steeplechasers excelling at a variety of trips had all but run its course by the new millennium’s dawn. Desert Orchid was the last of this rare and exciting breed, and he had left the stage 10 years earlier.

    Yet just when the concept of one horse dominating over all distances seemed like wishful thinking, along came a bay gelding with a broad white blaze who would do precisely that.

    Kauto Star – for six years from 2005 he was peerless over any distance. It all came alike to the steeplechaser who won the King George VI Chase a record five times, the Betfair Chase four times, the Cheltenham Gold Cup twice and the Tingle Creek Chase on both occasions he contested the two-mile feature.

    “There’s no question he would have won several Champion Chases over two miles had we asked him to do that,” asserts his trainer, Paul Nicholls

    Needless to say, we have not seen his like since.

    Jockey Ruby Walsh reflects. “Kauto Star picked up two injuries as a young horse and would have some heavy falls later, but it never frightened him. He was brave, hard and strong of mind as well as being physically strong.”

    Those attributes became self-evident during the 2006–07 season, when Kauto Star swept all before him. He started by winning over two-and-a-half miles before Paul stepped him up to three miles for the first time in the Betfair Chase, in which he toyed with a high-class field to win by 17 lengths.

    “That was a special day,” Ruby says. “It told us that he stayed; that he could be a Gold Cup horse. He was so strong, and I remember thinking: ‘This is different.’ I could feel his power through the reins even though I was trying to conserve him, and I only quickened up for one furlong. There was so much left in the tank. It was unbelievable.”

    Kauto Star was inexorably on the march, although Paul made one last nod to the past. Two weeks after the Betfair Chase, in which the horse looked like a Gold Cup winner in waiting, Paul audaciously saddled him for the Tingle Creek Chase back over two miles.

    “Six days before the Tingle Creek, I told Ruby I was thinking of running him and he said we’d spent all this time teaching him to settle; why take him back into a speed test?,” Paul relates. “Then Ruby rang me back two minutes later to say we could all be dead tomorrow; let’s run.”

    The outcome was another facile victory, after which Kauto Star won his first King George VI Chase at Kempton – and 10 weeks later, his first Gold Cup at Cheltenham. It was a flawless campaign.

    King George VI Chase

    Long Run and (nearside) Kauto Star on the first circuit of the King George VI

    Kauto Star would dominate thereafter despite losing his Gold Cup crown to stablemate Denman in 2008, when he put in a shoddy round of jumping. But he avenged that defeat the following year when he strode clean away from Denman to win by 13 lengths.

    “He was magnificent that day; he won as he liked,” owner Clive Smith enthuses. “He was the first horse to reclaim the Gold Cup, having lost it the year before, and he was given the highest [official] rating of any horse since Arkle.”

    A third Gold Cup beckoned in 2010, but Kauto Star blundered badly on the first circuit before he fell at the fourth-last. Then he lost his aura of invincibility. He was roundly beaten by Long Run, five years his junior, in both the King George and the Gold Cup before he was ignominiously pulled up at Punchestown.

    Kauto Star en-route to one of his King George VI victories

    However, just when he looked spent, he came again the following season. Kauto Star brought the house down in winning his fourth Betfair Chase and his fifth King George, both times from Long Run.

    “They were the two races I enjoyed most of all,” Paul says. “People were saying he should have been retired and we were being greedy. My neck was on the chopping block but at home he was in the form of his life, definitely as good going into his 12th year as at any other stage in his career.”

    Although Ruby and Clive were of a similar mindset, a schooling fall ahead of the 2012 Gold Cup shook Kauto Star to the core. There would be no last improbable act in a career of multiple comebacks; Kauto Star was pulled up early in the race and bound for retirement.

    His legacy? “Without any doubt he was the horse of a lifetime,” Paul says. “In addition to his class, he was sound and resilient while the likes of Long Run and the others all fell away.”

    Ruby does not hesitate to describe Kauto Star as the best horse he rode in a long and distinguished career. 

    “He was a superstar who had so much speed and ability,” he says, “and he kept on coming back. He was just an unbelievable racehorse.”

    As for Clive, the memories linger. 

    “I was there for every one of his 31 races. I was nervous when watching him and was always glad when he’d jumped the first few fences, after which I wasn’t so concerned for his safety. He was absolutely special; I was in awe of him.”

    Paul is not overly sentimental himself but his voice drops an octave when asked what life has been like since Kauto Star’s retirement. 

    “I’ve been lucky enough to have had some very good horses,” says the 12-time champion trainer. “It will be virtually impossible to find another like Kauto Star – but that won’t stop me trying.” 

    CHELTENHAM, ENGLAND - MARCH 11: Kauto Star and Ruby Walsh (left) with Denman and Sam Thomas looking at the first fence before the start of The totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup Chase at Cheltenham Racecourse on March 14, 2008 in Cheltenham, England. (Photo by Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images)

    Kauto Star and Denman before the start of the Gold Cup at the 2008 Cheltenham Festival

    Kauto Star: how his story started

    Kauto Star’s story was punctuated by highs and lows throughout a stellar career. It started in France, where he won four of his 10 outings before his transfer to Paul’s Somerset stables. His prowess was such that he’d earned the sobriquet “l’Extraterrestre”.

    France is where Kauto Star might have stayed but for an unlikely sequence of events. In May 2004, three days before Kauto Star won a Grade Three hurdle race at Auteuil, Clive left the auction ring at Doncaster unsure whether to laugh or cry. His bid of 520,000 guineas for Garde Champetre, a promising novice hurdler, was trumped by JP McManus, who’d bid a further 10,000 guineas to secure the horse.

    In consequence, Clive had a stash burning a hole in his pocket. He’d been alerted to Kauto Star’s availability and was sufficiently interested to send a vet to the stables of Serge Foucher, who trained the horse in north-west France. But Kauto Star would not play ball.

    “The vet rang me from France to say Kauto Star had refused point blank to be scoped,” Clive recalls of the procedure to assess a horse’s breathing mechanism. “That had happened before, apparently. Other people had tried to buy him but pulled out because of it. After the implications were explained to me, I thought: ‘Well, let’s buy him anyway.’”

    Six months after Kauto Star’s arrival in Britain, Paul rang his stable jockey, Ruby, with the promise of a festive gift. 

    “I entered the horse at Newbury just after Christmas and told Ruby I had something for him to look forward to,” Paul relates. “And I’ll always remember the smile on Ruby’s face when he came back into the winner’s enclosure. He didn’t need to say anything.”

    Ruby was blown away. 

    “It was a good novices’ chase and he absolutely bolted in,” he says. “It was like he never came out of second gear.”

    For all that, Ruby didn’t feel Kauto Star was a legend in the making. 

    “I was just hoping he would make up into a horse for the Arkle Chase [for two-mile novice chasers],” he recalls. “I had no idea he would go on to achieve what he did.”

    Then calamity struck. Kauto Star was cantering to victory on his next start at Exeter when he fell at the second-last. Ruby scrambled to remount, after which the combination rallied, despite a final-flight blunder, to come up narrowly short in a photo-finish. Insult was added to injury when Kauto Star returned home with a hock fracture that sidelined him for 10 months.

    Paul believes the setback might have been a blessing in disguise. 

    “It certainly didn’t do the horse any harm,” he suggests. “It meant he had plenty of time to fill out. He just got bigger, better and stronger.”

    There were issues on another front, however. Kauto Star was proving a handful, so much so that when he moved into the top yard at Ditcheat in the summer of 2005, nobody wanted to ride him out. The task was finally delegated to Clifford Baker, a former jockey and Paul’s long-standing right-hand man.

    “He was sharp when he was out in the lanes,” Clifford relates, “but I’ll never forget the first time I rode him on the gallops. He went from one end to the other and gave me a feel I’d never had from another horse, before or since. He tanked all the way up the hill – and he’d only been in for a week. I was amazed.”

    In hindsight, these formative essays were the making of Kauto Star. He was proud and impetuous, having proved difficult to break in. Great store was set in encouraging him to relax, although he was too much his own man to acquiesce entirely.

    “He hated traffic,” Clifford recalls. “One day he kicked a car on the road and put the biggest dent in the door you’ve ever seen. He’d often whip round and take me the wrong way, ducking about all over the place, but when he was on the gallops he was a real pro.”

    Clifford isn’t prone to take horses into his heart, but Kauto Star was different. 

    “I rode him for the best part of eight years,” Clifford relates. “We had our hiccups here and there, but he was a real pleasure to ride. I’d never been sentimental about a horse before him, and I haven’t been since.”

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