If you’re not a fan of National Hunt racing, you may find it surprising to learn that there are, in fact, just four Grade 1 staying steeplechases run on the British mainland during the entire National Hunt season. However, such is the gravitas afforded to the four races – the Betfair Chase at Haydock Park, the King George VI Chase at Kempton Park, the Cheltenham Gold Cup and the Betfred Bowl at Aintree – that horses which repeatedly do well in them become household names.
Desert Orchid, who won the King George VI Chase four times and the Cheltenham Gold Cup once, and Best Mate, who won the Cheltenham Gold Cup three times in a row, both captured the public imagination in their time. However, neither of them is likely to be remembered more fondly than Kauto Star, who won the King George VI Chase five times, the Betfair Chase four times and the Cheltenham Gold Cup twice during his nine-year career. Indeed, as late as September, owner Clive Smith and trainer Paul Nicholls were still considering running the 12-year-old one last time in the King George VI Chase on Boxing Day.
However, although Clive Smith has latterly intimated that Kauto Star could pursue a future career in dressage events, he and Paul Nicholls took the decision to retire the legendary chaser from racing at the end of October. A half life-size statue of Kauto Star was unveiled at Haydock Park on the morning of this year’s Betfair Chase, but anyone who was on hand to witness either of his last two wins in the King George VI Chase, in 2009 and 2011, will simply remember him, as the form book records, as “magnificent” or “awesome”.
Trained in the early part of his career by Serge Foucher in France, where he won four times over hurdles, Kauto Star made his debut for Paul Nicholls, as a 4-year-old, in a novices’ chase at Newbury at the tail end of 2004. Despite never having jumped a fence in public before, Kauto Star started 2/1 favourite and won easily.
However, it was his second run over fences, at Exeter the following January, that was to have the biggest impact on National Hunt racing in his early career. Starting at odds of 2/11 is a three-runner novices’ chase, Kauto Star fell at the second last when 12 lengths ahead of his nearest pursuer. As he was perfectly entitled to do, in those days, jockey Ruby Walsh remounted without stirrups and failed by just a short head to overhaul the eventual winner, Mistral De La Cour.
It wasn’t until the following day that Kauto Star was found to be lame behind and an X-ray revealed a hairline fracture of his near hind hock. He was confined to his box for three months and not seen on a racecourse again until the following November. The incident provoked public outcry, which led to periodic review of the rules on remounting and, ultimately, the banning of the practice by the British Horseracing Authority in 2009.
According to Paul Nicholls, the enforced layoff did Kauto Star very little harm and may, in fact, have done him some good. He won his first Grade 1 contest, the Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown Park, over 2 miles, on his second start back from injury and, although he go no further than the third fence when favourite for the Queen Mother Champion Chase at the Cheltenham Festival on his only subsequent start that season, he had announced his arrival on the chasing scene.
Indeed, the 2006/07 National Hunt season was arguably Kauto Star’s best ever. He remained unbeaten in six races, including the Tingle Creek Chase over 2 miles, the Old Roan Chase over 2 miles 4 furlongs, the Betfair Chase and the King George VI Chase over 3 miles and the Cheltenham Gold Cup over 3 miles 2½ furlongs. As if that wasn’t remarkable enough an achievement, his victories in the Betfair Chase, King George VI Chase and Cheltenham Gold Cup in the same season also earned his connections a £1 million bonus from Betfair.
The rest, as they say, is history. Kauto Star remained at the apex of the chasing tree for five more seasons and, even after a disappointing 2010/11 season, he returned to win the Betfair Chase and King George VI Chase again the following season. At the end of his career, the son of Village Star had won 23 of his 41 career starts, including 16 at Grade 1 level, and amassed just shy of £2.4 million in prize money. His Timeform rating of 191, which has only ever been bettered by two other legendary horses, Arkle and Flyingbolt, will make sure that he goes down in history and, despite his not being there, I’d like to have a pound for each time his name is mentioned at Kempton Park on Boxing Day afternoon.