CLOSE UP MAGAZINE
Nothing can reduce the awe I still feel for the phenomenon that was Arkle. But no one can tell me that a jumper has ever matched the feats of Kauto Star.
There is a school of sporting greybeards encouraged by the Timeform rating of 45 years ago which puts him an absurd 21 pounds ahead of Kauto Star and suggests that any questioning of Arkle’s supremacy is nothing short of heresy. Well I question it. I was at Cheltenham in March 1964 and rode in the Cathcart two races after Arkle put Mill House to the sword and leapt clear into immortality. I had stood at the last fence of the Honeybourne Novice Chase eighteen months earlier when he made his sensational first visit to Britain. I saw the glory and the last defeat. He had 26 races over fences and lost only four times; once when he slipped, twice when he was conceding stones in weight and once when he broke his leg. That final time was in the King George VI at Kempton and the whole of Ireland and most of England held their breath for his recovery. I did too. Don’t tell me about Arkle.
He was a freak and became a cult. From the moment he put down that first soaring declaration of potential greatness at Cheltenham he came to represent little less than a four legged messiah for the yearnings of the Irish. Here was a horse who would right the wrongs of what still felt a down trodden nation. Imagine the consternation when that (unseen on TV) slip allowed the new British hero Mill House to swagger home in the 1963 Hennessy Gold Cup. Try and picture the bliss when revenge was so completely taken four months later. Ireland had an ultimate. He was so far ahead of his contemporaries that they had to frame handicaps “with and without Arkle”. They wrote songs, and books and plays about him. He got so used to the adulation that he used to walk round the paddock with his neck upright and long ears erect while he scanned his worshippers as if he were some papal master of the glen. You can see what I mean by heresy.
Kauto Star is different. For all his uniquely lasting brilliance he has never been a cult, never had anything like the following of Arkle or even of the “Dessiemania” fans of Desert Orchid who so took the front running grey to their hearts when he battled away in no less than 70 races between 1983 and 1991. “Dessie” was the tough guy. Both his first and last races ended in crashing falls. Both of those were at Kempton Park where he ran in 6 consecutive King George VI Chases and won 4 of them. He also won the 2mile Tingle Creek Chase and the 3mile 5 furlong Whitbread Gold Cup at Sandown Park and the Irish Grand National at Fairyhouse. But in no less than 8 consecutive visits to the Cheltenham Festival he could only manage one victory albeit in that an epic mud-slogging triumph in the 1989 Gold Cup. So if Desert Orchid exceeds Arkle for durability, where do I dare suggest Kauto Star measures up?
Well for a start he was infinitely more precocious. The lean and gawky Arkle did not run at all until he was turning five and won just two minor races in that first season. Compare that to Kauto Star who had already not only run 6 races over obstacles by the time the already cranky tempered Desert Orchid made his inauspicious debut at Kempton as a 4 year old, but Kauto’s three victory 3 year old career had shown such promise at France’s premier jumping track Auteuil that another victory next the spring led British owner Clive Smith spend £350,000 to transfer him to Paul Nicholls yard in Somerset. Not for nothing had his French breeder earlier nicknamed him “L’Extraterrestre.”
Unlike the others Kauto Star was aiming for the heavens from the very beginning. Like the others, although for Arkle it was only with that final career ending injury, he always ran the risk that he would reach them prematurely. After a dazzling introduction over British fences his next race saw him fall and break a bone in his leg when so far clear that jockey Ruby Walsh remounted and only failed to win by a whisker. After taking the star 2 mile Tingle Creek Chase next season Kauto took such a fall right in front of me when favourite for the 2 mile Champion Chase at the 2006 that I still wince at the memory.
He was the star 2 miler but the next season he took the place apart, winning 6 races from the Tingle Creek again to the Cheltenham Gold Cup itself. It was already his fifth racing year and as we come up for his 10th he will be pitching for a third Gold Cup after already nailing a record 5th King George VI Chase at Kempton. Compared to this Arkle was a blazing comet who streaked across his 5 season sky and it was only when Ruby Walsh voiced such a thought after putting the new champion Long Run in his place that day at Kempton that you could think that Kauto Star was finally getting his due.
For we began to acknowledge what Kauto had given us. How he has had to battle. How he had been with us at the very top for six full seasons and unlike Arkle had lived in an era when he was challenged all the way. The opposition to Arkle became so weak that his two other Gold Cups were little more than walkovers. Once Kauto had won his first Gold Cup at Cheltenham he had it taken off him by his massive stable mate Denman in 2008, won it back in 2009, took a neck breaker of a fall when odds on favourite in 2010 and was a gallant and seemingly end-of-the-road third behind Long Run last year.
And yet he is back. In both races this year Kauto Star has out-galloped and actually out-jumped his younger rival. Indeed his fencing last time at Kempton was as good as he has ever displayed in a discipline where his last fence blunders used to leave watchers gasping and turn Ruby Walsh’s hair an even whiter shade of pale. At an age when Arkle was already three years into retirement and Desert Orchid was having a glorious but uneven struggle with the great reaper, Kauto Star has looked almost as imperious as ever.
Of course Arkle was more superior to his contemporaries but what Kauto Star has done puts him in his own way beyond compare. The greatest privilege of my young sporting life was to have ridden at the time of Arkle. The greatest bonus of my rather older one is to have witnessed the unmatched, unmatchable exploits of the “Extraterrestre” they call Kauto Star.