Racing does not often make the national news and when it does it is usually for major triumphs or big disasters. Never, until the ‘And Finally’ item on ITV’s Ten O’Clock News on Monday, has it made it with just one old horse trotting dinkily round in a circle. If Kauto Star is bowing out, he’s going to do it gracefully.
Of course he always used to be in the news during these pre-Cheltenham weeks. For seven consecutive years a visit to Kauto Star has been one of the essentials of build up to the great Festival countdown. There would be the happy drive down to Ditcheat. Paul Nicholls would set new standards of openness as he took us through his runners for the big meeting. And of course the top turn was always the two big horses on that first row of boxes on the right, Kauto Star and, bang next door, his mighty rival Denman. Paul was welcoming the world in again last Wednesday but neither Kauto nor Denman were there any longer. Denman is becoming the star of the Duke of Beaufort’s hunting field and plans to cut a swathe with a Team Chasing unit modestly called ‘Lycetts. A Class Act.’ And Kauto? Well, as ITV viewers saw, Kauto is doing dressage.
Dressage? For more traditional racing folk there is a tendency to wince at this last information. “Kauto doing dressage” sounds a bit silly and effeminate for the record-breaker who March after March came to Cheltenham and put his talents, and sometimes his neck, so gloriously on the line. Twitter circulated a much giggled at cartoon showing Kauto in a tutu as if the old warrior had gone all soft in his retirement . Next up we would hear he was doing Pilates. As someone who, whisper it softly, now does Pilates, every Wednesday, I thought I had better set off and find out.
He’s certainly found himself a swanky new pad. Manor Farm Ditcheat was fine, and was itself a fair way up from Henri Aubert’s little farm at Lion d’Angers in the Loire Valley where Kauto Star’s grand dam cost Henry 700 Euros and the covering fee for sire Village Star was all of 600. But compared to these two spots the magnificent Membury Estate is a cross between Sandringham and Southfork. These 800 acres just off the M4 near Hungerford are where haulage millionaire Philip Walker has set up his country home and along with it an equestrian centre to help his talented daughter Grace towards honours in the riding world. This is where eventer Laura Collett and her mother Tracy run the yard and chart Grace’s progress. This is Kauto Star’s new home.
There was a slightly strange nervousness about going to meet him after all these years of watching on the racecourse or admiring him at his stables. Perhaps he would have got rather grand now he no longer had to endure the humbling grind of grafting up that wretched Ditcheat hill every morning. Maybe there would be much more French than West Country cider in his accent these days. Apparently his groom was so overawed at first Kauto that he wondered if he should muck him out in a dinner jacket.
Through the daunting wrought iron gates we go; up the well-manicured drive, past post and railed paddocks and a massive, aircraft-hangar sized indoor school and left into a smart modern barn with six large open topped boxes down either side. Laura and her mother are in attendance, so too is photographer Edward Whitaker and owner Clive Smith as immaculately outfitted as he always had been from Exeter to Aintree. And there in the first box was Kauto Star.
I had forgotten quite what a big brute he was. He might be a Frenchman but he is much more ex wing three quarter than Paris boulevardier. He is tall, that high wither must reach up to 17 hands (five foot eight inches) at the base of that long proud neck topped by that so familiar face with its long sword of white running down the whole length of the forehead. His body still has a raw athletic power about it with those long hard legs reaching down to big hooves freshly oiled. He does not look the sort of bloke to whom you make giggling jokes about Tutus and Pilates. He is still Kauto Star.
He seemed to be looking at me with a mixture of pity and contempt. No matter the sentimentality, there was a real feeling of both privilege and gratitude as I ran my own hand down that famous neck in just the place where Ruby’s left hand used to give its touchingly joy-soaked pat as Kauto passed the post at Kempton, Sandown, Newbury, Cheltenham and all the rest. To think that this was the arrogant precocious colt that his first trainer nicknamed “L’Extraterrestre” and who as a three year old won three times (and fell once) over hurdles in Paris and had actually won his first ever race only to be disqualified at the historic old racecourse in Bordeaux. This was the horse that even the thickest of us could see was a star from the first time we clapped eyes on him that otherwise gloomy December afternoon at Newbury in 2004.
It was the quicksilver, no-lift-off, jumping that struck us then and which was his trademark and sometimes his downfall in the seven amazing and eventful years that followed. Remember he turned over two out at Exeter a month after that Newbury debut, but was so far clear that Ruby remounted him to be a short head second before causing a subsequent re-writing of the remounting rules after a fracture was revealed. Recall much more frighteningly the real earth buster of a crash right in front of us as the Champion Chase field drilled down over the third fence at Cheltenham a year later. Moscow Flyer left hoof prints all over him and for a few seasons we would have scars in our psyche as Kauto took some terrible liberties, especially with the last fence, one of which dislodged Sam Thomas at Haydock.
But standing there beside as upright and healthy a thirteen year old as the horse world can muster was to remember that darkest of all clouds which rolled over Cheltenham on Gold Cup day in 2010. It was March 19th, exactly ten years to the day when Henri Aubert got home from a reception to oversee so swift a birth that he had no time to change out of his Sunday best. On the first circuit at Cheltenham Kauto galloped slap into the fence at the top of the hill. On the second his confidence was betraying him but his courage would not flinch. Flat out at the fourth last he took the sort of somersault that usually has the screens erected and the knackers van moved in. Miraculously he survived it and then amazed us all by putting Long Run in his place at Haydock and Kempton next autumn. But the silly fool was still “imbecile” as well as “extraterrestre”. Last year he took another crasher round the Nicholls ultra- familiar schooling paddock a month before Cheltenham. He made the Festival but not in health enough to finish. It was over but, alleluia, he was intact.
So here he was being tacked up with a deep dressage saddle specially built to accommodate his extra high wither and here was Laura Collett in such full fig that you hoped she wasn’t asking for it. Edward Whitaker had coaxed her into the top hat, red-collared blue swallow tail coat, glamorous cream breeches and shining black boots livery of the formal dressage test. On her top left pocket she wore the union jack which she has worn on Rayef at both Senior and Junior level taking gold in the latter in the European Championships of 2007. Rayef is boxed next to Kauto Star and is going to Badminton. In view of Kauto’s famous jumping lapses I am pleased he is now only going to the dressage arena. “Kauto Star is approaching the Quarry” would be a public address announcement to make you quail.
Into the arena and he was a marvel. But why shouldn’t he be? In contrast to the awestruck tones on ITV and even of the studiously detailed three pages and striking front cover assembled by Horse and Hound Editor Lucy Higginson in this week’s edition, I was not very surprised at how handsomely Kauto Star had progressed. For on the racetrack it was the aura of elegance about him that had made his falls and blunders so shocking. There was something regal as regal about the way he strode around the paddock and trotted those final yards to the start as there was to the flowing power of that majestic stride. No galloping now but the trot is already a thing of beauty. The Membury indoor school is almost as big as the full sized covered football pitch which features at the Football Association’s new flagship St George’s Park. A single horse and rider could look lost in it but Kauto and Laura filled it with style.
“He is in marvellous shape for a horse who has been through so much,” says Laura’s mother Tracey as we admire such an already arched neck and silky stride that you might have thought Kauto had spent his summer watching the Olympics than out at grass in Dorset. “After all those bumps and races you would expect there to be a bit of damage but he is free in his movement, his legs are clean and the only thing our osteopath had to do was a couple of tweaks of his pelvis. He settled in straightaway and all we had to do at the start was to cut his feed right down. After all he had come straight from the stable so he was a bit hyper with that massive energy boost. But once all the corn was out of him he was quiet enough and we could go to work on him.”
At this point it would be good to let Kauto Star wave the flag for a more informed approach to ex-racehorses in general. R.O.R. (Retraining Of Racehorses) has done a lot to spread awareness of how many things a thoroughbred can do when it leaves the track. But, however well intentioned, there is a tendency to overstress the problems, to talk of “rehabilitation” as if all racehorses have traumas that only months of the deepest treatment can resolve. In reality, once you have cut the food and the freshness out of them, the great majority of horses make perfectly good hacks straight away. I have my tenth at home now. What they did on the racetrack may have been dramatic, but during their ordinary routine they have to behave just like ordinary horses and if they have been ridden every day, as Kauto Star was, by as good a horseman as Clifford Baker, they tend to make new friends easily.
Kauto Star clearly has. Laura now brings him diagonally across the school and if he is not exactly doing that astonishing leg-folding half pass which is such a feature of high grade dressage, he is bending gently in as he makes his way across. “The great thing about him,” adds Tracey as she watches her daughter, “is that his brain is really on side, he really tries. The first time she rode him Laura said that he was really intelligent and that he was taking on board what she was asking him. If they have a good brain and they want to work with you it is so important.”
Amidst all this admiring earnestness we now get a moment of splendid light relief. At the crown of the bend Laura squeezes into the canter, the swallow tails of the coat flick out behind the saddle and Kauto give the most ginormous buck. On landing he then does a vertical take-off and then follows that with an impressive pawing of the air with his front legs as you used to see in Westerns. But any glee we might have had at this apparent equine delinquency was soon stifled by how utterly unfazed were both mother and daughter. At Blenheim Trials last year Laura jumped a six foot set of poles without a saddle in an event where after each mistake you had to remove a piece of tack or clothing. Mark Todd did it without a shirt. Laura could probably win it as Lady Godiva. A few bucks from Kauto were not a worry.
“He is very good mentally,” she said when she rejoined us. “He is very good at learning but he gets very tired. For as he is not used to doing these exercises he does not have the muscles to cope. He is a runner doing the work of a ballet dancer. He has a huge front on him and his neck goes on forever but he is not used to bending his back the way we need to do. As he progresses we need to change his shape, to put muscle on top of his neck not underneath, to build up his back. You are really turning him upside down.”
Laura is a protégée of Yogi Breisner, for the last 14 years World Class Performance Manager of the British Equestrian Team and the man to whom Clive Smith sought advice as to Kauto Star’s future. “I honestly did not realise the horse could be so popular,” says Yogi, “but he can be a great example of what can happen after racing. Of course he is too old, and not really the right shape to spend the years needed to be educated to the top level but we are doing a little demonstration at Newbury races next Saturday and he can do some other classes later in the year. He oozes quality, has a great temperament and huge credit must go to Paul Nicholls and his staff for the shape the horse is in after all these years and the fact that he can settle in to a new life so quickly.” As a final nod to the owner-trainer fall out of three months ago, Yogi concludes “the horse is thriving, Paul has been in touch with Laura to complement her, and Clive can see Kauto more often. There are no losers in this.”
What last week’s coverage and the constant enquiries that are coming Clive Smith’s way are proving is that Kauto Star remains not just a shining light in the memory but a current presence which will draw admirers from all over the country. Very few reach this status and if they do they have to exert more than just dressage self-control. Most legendary, of course was Red Rum who opened everything from betting shops to supermarkets, switched on the lights at Blackpool and starred in the studio at Sports Personality of The Year.
“And do you know,” the great Ginger McCain would love to say, “he never once disgraced himself.”