Kauto Star was imperious. He dominated, he commanded, he subjected one of the classiest line ups of equine talent to a display of arrogant authority. He proved himself the King, and gave a short, sharp back-hand to those who thought themselves worthy of displacing him. Last Saturday, on an overcast afternoon at Haydock Park, a special sporting achievement took place.
Man and horse have through the ages enjoyed a special relationship. Brave warriors always wanted to be depicted upon their loyal and noble mount, Napoleon rarely being painted without his famous white horse. Classics show the winged Pegasus, son of Poseidon, chartering unthinkable journeys due to the strength of the bond with his Master. When in need, Gandalf planted his staff and over the horizon galloped the ever-dependable Shadowfax, splendid and magnificent. The Lone Ranger had to but whistle before Silver appeared, a brief “Hi Ho” and off they go.
Man and horse have a time-honoured bond. Since the mid 18th century this has also been enjoyed in sport, through steeplechase racing. Originating when two Irishmen quarrelled over who had the greatest steed, it could only be decided by a contest, a race, to see who was fastest. They charged the four miles between the church steeples of two villages, over hedge and through ditch, through water logs and over wooden ones.
The result was glory, bragging rights, and the most prized possession. Not only must the creatures be fast, he must be brave, courageous, never thinking about what lay on the otherside, trusting in his master. The horseman must be clever, able to read the race, anticipate danger, gauge speed and most importantly master his living, pulsing, quivering mount.
And so, over 250 years on, the same virtues are essential, the sport is pure.
Today we have Ruby Walsh, hailing from County Kildare, where they know their horses better than their family. Growing up with an amateur champion jockey for a father, Walsh’s efforts on the track soon catapulted him to the company of a rare few on the upper steps of jump racings Pantheon. His soft hands and unrivalled understanding of the horses he rides have delivered 30 winners at jump racings finest theatre, the Cheltenham Festival, as well as a Grand National at the first attempt at the age of 20 (it took his friend, the greatest jump jockey ever AP McCoy 15 attempts before he tasted glory).
Through his natural ability and the prevailing success, Ruby has the finest horses to choose from, a harem that would make Napoleon drool. In pride of place is the great Kauto Star. For a man who has tasted so much success upon so many horses to pick the special one, with no second thought or consideration, is quite some accolade. This little Irishman and this proud French horse exhibit the greatest understanding and teamwork between man and beast.
Kauto Star’s record of four victories in the King George VI, the centre piece of so many families’ Boxing Day, eclipsed the efforts of the nations favourite, Desert Orchid, whose mighty talent and huge heart could only manage a meagre three. In the 192 years since the inception of the Cheltenham Gold Cup, the Blue Riband of jump racing, he is the only horse to have regained the crown, after having had ‘The Tank’ Denman put une pea d’eau sur ses pommes frites. To many he is The Greatest.
Saturday was special, and to many the most special of Kauto and Ruby’s magnificent 18 victories. On New Years Day he will turn 12 years old, and many believed him to be in his twilight years, rightfully so as even the greatest cannot halt the progression of age. Many have called for him to be retired, to go out on a high note and be remembered for his glories. No one wants to see Kauto slog around a track to finish respectably in the midfield, unable to lay down the gauntlet to his younger and very talented opposition. In his last two starts, Kauto’s greatness was overshadowed by the precocious talent of Long Run, five years his junior. Both times he finished third, nothing more to give, proud in defeat, but defeated nonetheless.
And so to Haydock. Long Run was a short, 6/5 favourite, Kauto Star, a still hopeful, largely nostalgia inspired, 6/1. The tape came down and they galloped. Kauto and Ruby looked fresh, happy and free. They led from the front, jumped like giants and galloped like two old friends enjoying themselves in Tolkein’s Shire. Sometimes, it appears even age is forced to take a back seat, as will power, ability, and sheer bloody-mindedness take over. Kauto dug deep, as deep as he ever has done, and overturned a star studded ensemble of the next generation.
It was magical to watch, two old friends revelling in an unspeakable bond, enjoying themselves and demonstrating the finest virtues of horsemanship, trust and understanding.
Whether Kauto Star wins another King George or Gold Cup is yet to be seen. But it doesn’t actually matter. Seeing an old hero, a true War Horse, digging deep and shining against all the odds and over all who challenged him was all any racing fan, any fan of sport, could dream of.
This is a just a man and his horse, challenging a few men and their horses to a race from A to B. Whether in mythology, in war or in fiction, the relationship between man and horse is inspirational. Kauto and Ruby deserve their place alongside Pegasus in the stars. This was simply wonderful sport.
by Daniel Polak