Even before he first raced in earnest – in an unsung mile and six furlong hurdle race at the Bordeaux Le Buscat in South West France on March 1st 2003– Kauto Star had been nicknamed “Phenomene.” This Cheltenham should give us the chance to appreciate what a phenomenom he really is.
For no other horse – not even the peerless Arkle or the indomitable Desert Orchid – has displayed so extended a mix of both precocity and sustained excellence. Kauto Star won half of his six races – and took a fall at Auteuil- in that first three year old campaign. He came over to Paul Nichols in the summer of 2004 making this his 6th UK season and the fifth consecutive time he has run at the Cheltenham Festival. Yet still some argue against him.
It’s partly because of his tendency to mix imperious brilliance with heart and the mouth drama which even extended to his first race this term when only the judge was able to separate him and the supposedly way inferior Imperial Commander at the end of slugging match up the run in at Haydock. In January 2005 he and Ruby Walsh only lost in a photo after turning over at the second last and remounting at Exeter. In March 2006 he took a real crasher of a fall at the second fence in the Champion Chase. The next season may have delivered a flawless six from six record including both the Tingle Creek and the Gold Cup, he at times still entirely ignored the ordinary rules of jumping. In the 2008 Gold Cup he was flattened by the Denman juggernaut. Only now 33 races, 20 victories and £2million in prize money on are we truly giving him his due.
For this is a wonderful equine racer; tall, elegant, athletic, classy but also stubbornly determined. When he is truly on song as he was when he took his 4th consecutive King George VI Chase at Kempton last December, he is the most awesome and athletically pleasing sight in steeplechasing. But if he has to, as happened at Haydock, he is prepared to take his coat off and stick his neck out to get the job done.
For him to be competing at the top level for a seventh consecutive season speaks volumes for those who train him but is most of all a tribute to his own talent and constitution. You only have to look at the record of Denman and indeed of Imperial Commander to see how difficult such excellence is to sustain. If either or both of them get to the Gold Cup start in peak form they are entitled to the argument. But Kauto Star at his imperious best is something else. Go there and celebrate.