2 November 2008

Delight was a horse with a new white noseband springheeling it round the green fields of Co Down. Kauto Star was quite dazzlingly-brilliant in his comeback at Down Royal.

He was odds-on. At the finish, the 50-1 outsider Light On The Broom was a distant second. The Listener started second favourite but was a disappointing last of the four finishers. It should not have been thrilling and it was. Indeed that was the delight of it.

For this horse is a star in presence as well as name. And aged only eight, he already has a glittering past. Everyone knows that he summited in glory when taking the 2007 Gold Cup at the end of an unprecedented six-race clean sweep for the season. Everyone also knows that he ended last term struggling as stablemate Denman took his crown and that he then lost his compensation race at Aintree three weeks later. We could doubt before yesterday. But not afterwards.

Nor even, in truth, from the very first glimpse. Kauto Star strode into the paddock a glittering symbol of equine fitness. “He is much, much sharper at home than last year,” jockey Ruby Walsh had said beforehand. “Last year he would slop through the village. When I went down a month ago he almost had me in the hedge twice.” Kauto Star is tall, a good 16.2 hands (5 ft 6 in) at the shoulder, but not weak and leggy. He does not have Denman’s massive power, but is as light and lithe as any athlete should be. And in the top-class steeplechaser you have the greatest athlete species of them all.

Forget Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps. Or let them try jumping 15 five-foot fences carrying 164 pounds in the saddle over three miles of soggy, stamina-sapping turf in just six minutes 35 seconds and come cruising home with Walsh still on their shoulders and now patting themn on the neck. “He got a bit close to the third-last,” said the jockey of Kauto Star, “but otherwise he was awesome. He does it all so easily. I honestly think he has never been better.”

It is quite a statement for a horse which has won 17 of his 29 races and over £1.4 million in prize money. But it is one which his trainer echoes. “He seems eager, but wonderfully relaxed,” said Paul Nicholls before outlining a season’s schedule which will take in the Betfair Chase before trying for a third consecutive “King George” and then regrouping to go fresh in his attempt to become the first horse to regain the Gold Cup at Cheltenham.

Whether Denman will reoppose after his recent treatment for a heart fibrillation remains to be seen, but while Nicholls reports the horse back cantering up the famous Ditcheat Hill, he will have got encouragement from Irish trainer Dessie Hughes’ memory of the complete recovery from the same ailment of his successful chaser Rathbawn Prince. Yet Nicholls is not a man to dwell on such matters, for the good reason he does not have the time. Within half-an-hour of Kauto Star he was watching the talented Noland put another pack of local chasers to the sword. For any other stable Noland would be a jewel beyond price. With Nicholls yesterday, he was just another in Kauto’s shade.

It is odd, but not unexplainable, how a great chaser can lift the heart. For the very nature of what he does is a defiance not just of gravity but of the attritional odds of the discipline he masters, and which always threatens to cut him and his rivals down. In January 2005 Kauto Star broke a bone in his leg when he fell at Exeter and Walsh got some difficult headlines after he remounted to almost win in a photo. Kauto Star’s comeback on the same course 10 months later was the race in which Best Mate collapsed fatally and ‘Kauto’ ended that season with a crashing fall in the Champion Chase.

But despite all this. Despite all those alarming moments of fallibility in his jumping over the years, Kauto Star stepped out fresher than ever yesterday and our spirits rose. The noseband, Nicholls explained, was to try and help the lapses in concentration on which he blames those jumping errors. On this evidence, some of us ought to apply for it.

For with Kauto Star the good times beckon again. Down Royal boasts that this jnwine.com Champion Chase is their most prestigious event in 323 years of racing. It is a place which everyone used to call The Maze until the name was applied to the infamous prison camp, which now lies behind the wire in empty and nettle-filled memory hardly a mile away. As the sun shone the hope had to be that ‘Kauto’ was an omen in a happier sky.

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