A fry up after a night on the tiles, chocolate at Easter or stuffing with turkey around Christmas time. Take your pick, the point is, there are certain times when particular delectable goods become staple diet.
A similar theory could be applied to racing. For the past few years, taste buds drooled in awe at Frankel. Before him, the salivated over Sea The Stars. With flat racers, the infatuation tends to be all too brief. Even the greatest stayer of them of all, Yeats, was only 8 when he was retired. Yet, in normal circumstances on the level, he’d have been turned out to a paddock at four.
Over jumps, longer is afforded to digest a standing dish. Indeed, a certain affinity with and affection for horses often develops. No apologies will be made for the fact that Noel Meade and his horses are especial favourites here. Simply because it was his help and kindness that not only got me out of tight spot many moons ago but also implanted the racing bug in me. From there, contact and friendships have been established with many others in the sport.
In terms of horses, everyone will have their favourites too. Obviously, some of Noel’s are among them for yours truly. Harchibald foremost among them. Surely one of the greatest horses never to win a Champion Hurdle. That’s not to say that other trainers horses aren’t admired too. Of course they are – greats like Hurricane Fly, Quevega, Sizing Europe, Big Zeb and Sir Des Champs, to name but a few. And going back even further to the likes of Istabraq, Moscow Flyer, War Of Attrition, Brave Inca and an old English favourite, Viking Flagship.
This corner would admit, however, that it took longer than for most to catch the Kauto Star buzz. Initial doubts seemed well founded when he fell on his first outing at the Cheltenham Festival. Paul Nicholls’ assertion to Ruby Walsh very early on that he had ‘something special for him to ride’ one day at Haydock proved, in the long run, gloriously understated. Horse and rider went on to be one of the greatest combinations seen in any sport.
How to sum up Kauto Star? Well, undoubtedly supremely talented. Perhaps unusually versatile too. In that he could, seemingly effortlessly, mop up contests like the Tingle Creek Chase over two miles and yet excel in the Gold Cup at further than three. Much of the credit for that must go to Nicholls and Walsh for the way they prepared and looked after the French bred. It was probably the most important factor in the horses longevity on the track.
Maybe where the horse deserves most plaudits is when one considers the calibre of those he raced against. Best Mate won the Gold Cup three years on the trot, but even though Meade’s Harbour Pilot was among those to finish placed behind Jim Lewis’ star (foaled in Trim!) gut feeling remains that the opposition of the day wasn’t great.
Ruby Walsh said in his autobiography – referring to AP McCoy – that being recognised by either your first name or initials was an affirmation of legendary status. That point was made here some months ago in relation to retired rugby star John Hayes. Everyone knew who ‘The Bull’ was.
Kauto was similar. For a horse, that says something. Where the animal Clive Smith was lucky enough to own differed from Lewis’ was that the former had no easy ride in terms of opposition. Most of it from within his own residence, in fact. Denman and Neptune Collonges and Nicky Henderson’s Long Run were all top performers in their own right, yet none scaled the heights of Smith’s star. That said, Long Run still might! They all have quite an act to follow though.
Like all greats in sport, there were certain places that played big parts in the story. Eric Cantona really hit the big time at Old Trafford. Kerry football teams come to life in Croke Park. Lionel Messi – though an accomplished international with Argentina – is most associated with illuminating the Nou Camp. Though it might seem strange given that he dominated the Gold Cup for so long, Haydock and Kempton could both vie for being the place mostly associated with Kauto Star.
The former due to his four Betfair Chase successes there, the latter because he won one more King George than Betfair! In a moving tribute posted the day after he was retired, Danielle Baker – daughter of Nicholls’ head lad Clifford – pinpointed the occasion of his fifth King George as her most treasured memory.
It’s hard to disagree. Prior to Frankel, that day was the first the sight of hats, scarves and flags in a horses colours was encountered. Mentioning Frankel and Kauto Star in the one sentence tells its own story. Their impact on their sphere in the sport was of similar magnitude.
Now, though, it’s time to get used to life after Kauto. The set menu on a St Stephen’s Day at Kempton and at Cheltenham on Gold Cup day have been discontinued – serving suggestions welcome! In other words, as is always the case, the door has opened for someone else to assume the mantle. I’ll plump for Sir Des Champs to do just that.