19 November 2006
It was the yell that told us. Ruby Walsh, 50 yards from the finishing line, looked round and his eyes told him what his body had felt. Kauto Star had simply destroyed his rivals in the Betfair Chase at Haydock. He was a horse who had now shown that he could produce his two-mile pace at the end of a three-mile slog. The sky, the absolute sky, was the limit.
It was the sort of yell of which all sportsmen fantasise. It was scoring a goal, hitting a six, grounding a try and better than that. Walsh’s face was alight, his whole being in thrall. He had ridden big winners all over the world but this could be the very best of them. This, at 27, with two Grand Nationals, three championships and a house full of trophies already landed, was what he had been waiting for.
The best questions are the simplest. You could see how this one was going to be asked even before the tapes went up. Ollie Magern, Kingscliff and Iris’s Gift were jostling to make the running. Kauto Star may have the speed which made him favourite for last season’s Two Mile Champion Chase but he was untested at this three-mile trip. They intended to test him now.
Ollie Magern set off towards the first as if the devil rather than Tony Evans was in the stirrup irons. Ollie Magern has had his off days in the past but this was not to be one of them. If there were flaws in anyone’s jumping or stamina he would expose them. A couple of times Kauto Star took his fences a touch low, once or twice Beef Or Salmon showed characteristic awkwardness over the obstacles but the first white flag raised came from another quarter.
As the six runners streamed past us, Ollie Magern leading the lumbering but clean-jumping Iris’s Gift, Kingscliff’s rider Robert Walford was already uneasy. Fifty yards later he was desperate. A year ago the massive Kingscliff won here and was made favourite to land the Betfair £1 million bonus awarded to any horse completing the Betfair Chase, King George VI and Gold Cup treble. But he downed tools after landing on a fence in the King George, disappointed in the Gold Cup and weakened quickly last time. Here he was back in last place as the runners turned away from the stables for a final circuit and trailing round behind them to finish a sulky distant last. Kingscliff is mighty, but right now he looks fallen.
Up front little Ollie Magern continued to dazzle ahead of Iris’s Gift, who was putting up just the sort of passable imitation of a steeplechaser he so failed to do last year. As the leader swung left to face the four fences in the straight, a glance behind would have seen L’Ami and Beef Or Salmon queued up close to Kauto Star, all ready to ask the favourite the question.
Ollie Magern was fast and low over the third last, shedding three of his pursuers in the process, but Kauto Star was still cruising. ‘Ollie’ was good again at the next and as Evans worked towards the final fence he could hear but not see his rival. As they took the obstacle he saw Walsh beside him. In a few dazzling seconds all he saw was a lessening view as Kauto Star sprinted off into the distance and ‘Ollie’, L’Ami and Beef Or Salmon slogged it out for second place.
Are we getting carried away with a horse who, despite his awesome promise last season, has been probably best known for his fall and subsequent Walsh re-mount at Exeter two years ago? It’s possible and Racing Demon’s Peterborough Chase victory at Huntingdon means that horse should prove a real test next time at Kempton. First impressions are important, and these were awesome.
“I have always thought he was very special and he’s answered those stamina questions himself,” said trainer Paul Nicholls before doing a bit of mocking self-flagellation by saying: “I have been trying to make a Champion Chase horse out of a Gold Cup horse.” So the trainer was thrilled, but the jockey was shaking. Literally.
When Walsh came out for the next race there was still a tremor in his voice. “Jees, that is something,” he said. “I have always thought he might be able to do this. I had clammy hands this morning. With all the horses I ride that hardly ever happens. With Azertyuiop, before the National with Hedgehunter and Papillon, maybe Commanche Court when he was right, but this was exceptional. Going three miles he can just ‘pop’ round with his jumping and then his speed blows them away.”
Yes, something worth shouting for.