CHEERS ROLL IN FOR CHAMPION

18 March 2007


As the Gold Cup runners came away from the second fence Ruby Walsh’s educated hands went down on Kauto Star’s neck and the reins ran slack to the bit on the bridle. The high-mettled favourite had accepted this easy, opening rhythm. The first battle in his tilt at immortality had been won.

As with so many aspects of Friday’s triumph, it was not a victory won by Walsh alone. Ever since Kauto Star had arrived at Paul Nicholls’s West Country stables in 2004 with a sky-high French reputation and a euro 400,000 price tag, it was clear that his talent was inlaid with quirkiness. At the most basic this meant a fly-leaping aversion to odd sights on exercise. At the wider level it demanded that the qualities which had him dubbed ‘L’Extraterrestial’ by his first connnections would need to be handled with wisdom all the way.

It took 6 min 40.46 sec for Kauto Star to complete his 22-fence, three-and-a-quarter mile Gold Cup triumph but the length and the depth of crowd’s reception acknowledged the achievement was over a longer scale. For most this referred to his much-chronicled jumping flaws, but at Cheltenham the timeless Cleeve Hill backdrop encourages you to give perspective to success. With Kauto Star that means confirmation that Nicholls did not get to the top of his profession with energy as his only trick.

Sure the 44-year-old former jockey crackles with the high voltage of the driven man, but throughout the three-season, 11-race roller-coaster that has been Kauto Star’s English career, he has insisted on the team-game aspect of developing the finest prospect his Ditcheat stable has ever had. The key players were all around Kauto Star as he was led out on to the track at Cheltenham.

At Kauto’s head was Sonia Warburton, who had done her horse’s stable duties since he arrived from France. Ahead of her was Nicholls’s head man Clifford Baker. Baker may have a hundred or so other horses to worry about but this is the one he rides out every morning. He had been here with previous Gold Cup winners Charter Party and See More Business. A unique third would be a hands-on feat.

At this stage the tension cut through like a chill. The different ends of Nicholls’s team stood tall like rugby men ready for the anthem. Young Dan Skelton, the assistant, looked old before his time, and Brian Nicholls, Paul’s father, pulled up his big chest with all the authority of his policeman days. And then there was the trainer himself.

Paul Nicholls had made the calls on the journey. The decision to launch the then four-year-old Kauto Star straight over fences; the 11-month wait after the second attempt ended with a fall, a remount, and a hairline fracture. The successful tilt at the prestigious two-mile Tingle Creek Chase, the somersaulting disaster on this course a year ago; then this season’s remarkable five-race unbeaten run marred by the recent recurring jumping lapses.

Nicholls and his team had done everything in their power. He believed that a final increased workload had got Kauto Star into the best and most amenable shape yet. But now he, and we, could only watchers be.

The first good sign was the canter down. At Kempton Kauto Star was still ‘revved up’ from reverting brilliantly back to two miles to win the Tingle Creek for a second time. At Newbury he was very fresh after a seven-week lay-off. On those days, Walsh’s knuckles were white as they strained the reins on the way to the start. On Friday, they were loose as his partner sailed smoothly beneath them.

Then the race; that moment after the second fence when you could see the loop on the rein, the easy jumping along the inside, the birch-brushing clout at the seventh and the immediate composure afterwards, calmness personified after a circuit, the stalk through the field towards the closing showdown, and then the swing into the straight for whatever fate might decree.

On the big screen everyone could see that Kauto Star was going well enough. But there had been no pace, there were still plenty of contenders and two fences to sprint over. Would the jumping jink now ruin all that had gone before?

The slow pace was nearly his undoing. With so much flotsam still around, Walsh was forced to pull wide and gun for the second last. Kauto’s superior speed winged him up and over the fence so fast that the race was over. Drilling down to us at the last, it was just theirs to lose.

Walsh did not have the rein loose now. He had it firm on Kauto’s bit as he stormed for the fence. Five strides out the horse had no simple stride for the leap. Walsh held tight. The horse hurdled forcefully through the top. The gasp of worry turned to an instant realisation that this was not the fence-stepping cop-out we had got at Kempton and Newbury. This was just a champion in a hurry. This was how Kauto Star’s Gold Cup would be won.

Afterwards the cheers rolled in great waves off the stands in appreciation not just of what they had seen but of a story they understood. The cheers continued all the way to the unsaddling enclosure. Owner Clive Smith had shelled out the original cash and would rightly take the major part of Betfair’s fabled £1 million bonus. But as those cheers hit him on Friday, he knew that Kauto Star belonged to all of us now.

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