3 December 2006

How good  is he? Can we be looking at greatness? These are the finest questions in racing. Today we can ask them of Kauto Star.

Two weeks ago at Haydock, he destroyed some of the best three-milers around, yesterday he returned to put up a repeat performance over two miles as he left last season’s Arkle Chase hero Voy Por Ustedes a long-looking seven lengths adrift in the Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown. Kauto Star threatens to be one of those unique creatures to whom all distances come alike. Desert Orchid may have been gathered to the great stable in the sky but here is a horse worthy of at least of being mentioned in the same sentence.

The delight of Desert Orchid was that his connections never backed off a target, be it the Tingle Creek over two miles or the Whitbread Gold Cup over three miles and five furlongs. Kauto Star looks set to be the same, although it has to be said that the idea of switching back to two miles for yesterday’s race horrified trainer Paul Nicholls when first suggested by owner Clive Smith a week ago.

“To be honest I was dead against it at first,” said Nicholls, “but then he was so unbelievably fresh this week I had to think why wait until Boxing Day and the King George.” In his open way Nicholls has never wavered in his belief that this could be the best horse he has ever trained and the way Kauto Star is going he is in danger of becoming the best many people have ever seen.

There is some way to go before the big comparisons become valid. Kauto Star’s five wins from eight races in Britain do not yet include anything at the Cheltenham Festival and while he is now odds-on for this year’s King George, he has to win it four times to match Desert Orchid. But no horse can do more than leave his contemporaries floundering the way Kauto Star does at the moment.

This sort of brilliance generates a greediness in the watcher. You go down to the fences to fill the eye. Over the years I have been lucky enough to stand out at Sandown with images of Moscow Flyer, Best Mate, Desert Orchid and all the way back to Arkle himself. The great horse gives you something; the power of his stride, the arc of his leap is one of nature’s masterpieces. That was the standard by which Kauto Star needed to be measured yesterday.

The ground may have been soft enough to have the first open ditch dolled off for waterlogging but Dempsey and the Irish challenger Central House brought the seven runners past us over the second at a gallop which was to bring a winning time almost two seconds quicker than the brilliant novice Fair Along half an hour earlier. Kauto Star’s one flaw has been his jumping. He has fallen twice in Britain and once in his native France where he developed into the best of his four-year-old generation. But yesterday was nothing but flawless as he and Ruby Walsh soared like some spring-heeled Centaur behind the leaders.

The fences down the Sandown backstretch come at you quicker than any in the country. The fifth, sixth and seventh are packed in within 200 yards of each other and when Dempsey capsized at the fifth, heavily hampering Central House, Kauto Star and Voy Por Ustedes flew past them and the battle was joined.

“I thought I ought to put it up to him,” said Voy Por Ustedes’ rider Robert Thornton of the attack he launched at the start of the final bend. “My horse ran very well and it was his first run of the season. But Kauto Star must be exceptional. He had me beat well before the second last and my only hope was when I saw his tail come up as he clouted the second last.”

That mistake was his only blemish but even that drew praise from Walsh afterwards. “I was coming to the fence on a long stride,” he said, “and I asked him for the sort of jump that wins the Gold Cup at the third last. Instead he went in and belted it but he never felt like turning over. I think his falls have taught him.”

So how good is the horse that his original French connections called ‘L’Extraterreste’? Walsh had a smile creased so deep that his face will be almost as sore as his hobbling ankle in the morning. “Look,” he said, his voice almost whispered to stop the enthusiasm bubbling over, “long before my time they said that Arkle could work better than the Champion Chase winner Flyingbolt who was also second in the Champion Hurdle. Of course we don’t know if this horse could stay the three and a quarter miles of the Gold Cup. But I believe he belongs in that company.”

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