Anything but a formality – Kauto Star, the greatest steeplechaser since Desert Orchid, perhaps even since Arkle himself duly began his 6th British racing season with victory in Betfair Chase but only after a desperate, lung-sapping slog up the Haydock run in against Imperial Commander. At the line Ruby Walsh thought his horse was beaten. So did the crowd and a huge collective cheer of relief went up when the result came through.
The paper thin verdict was tough on Imperial Commander and his rider Paddy Brennan but Kauto Star has earned his adulation. It was way back in December 2004 that he first blazed into our consciousness with a lightning fast round at Newbury. An injury shortened that season, but next December he took the Tingle Creek, the year after he took the first of his three King George V1 Chases on Boxing Day and his ambition this season is to win it again and to take the champion’s crown in the Gold Cup for a third time at Cheltenham. When Kauto Star walked into the paddock you wanted to clap him just for turning up.
Haydock, less than a hundred miles from the appalling floods at Cockermouth seemed a brutal place for a season’s start up. But despite wild winds and a dark and watery sky, the Lancashire turf was not nearly as testing as many had feared and to see Kauto Star in the preliminaries was to see the very essence of an equine star. He is tall but not heavy and as he walked composed and easy -strided in the parade you marvelled that he should be back to battle again.
On Friday night the core of the Irish racing world were at the launch of a book to celebrate the astonishing comet that was Sea The Stars last flat racing season. But that paragon was not even born when Kauto Star won the Tingle Creek and his efforts now will only be of the private kind in the breeding shed. Geldings have it tougher and as the 7 runners finally came out on to the track you could see from the gumshield grimace on Madison du Berlais’s rider Tom Scudamore that Kauto’s rivals were out there to try him.
“Yes,” Tom, had said with a wry smile of resolve, “I am going to put it to him. He’s better than us but you never know what might happen first time out.” Off they streamed with 18 fences in front of them and for a while Scudamore was able to take a lead off the runaway Seymour Weld but once that outsider dropped away it was he and Paddy Brennan on Imperial Commander who set what they planned would be an ever increasing tempo.
Hopes that the Irish challenger Notre Pere would also be a pacemaker ooked in trouble as this massive beast struggled to stay with them . His way of galloping looks as if he actually needs floods as deep as Cockermouth and so the eye kept going back behind the leaders to the familiar white nose banded shape of Kauto Star skipping so elegantly over his fences.
Time was when we held our breath that he might clout one but there was only one error, (down the back straight) this time and otherwise we marvelled at those long, flowing almost effortless leaps which were surely now taking him to a 19th victory in this his 32nd examination on a racecourse. We needed only to look at Imperial Commander and realise that “surely” was not an appropriate word.
For though Ruby Walsh swept past Madison Du Berlais to take the inside position round the final turn, Paddy Brennan was poised and cruising outside him on Imperial Commander. As they straightened up he was clearly going the better. At the third last Kauto looked in trouble but his rival clouted it and let the champion back in. As they came towards the final fence there was nothing in it and both jockeys were asking everything.
Over they came and past us, two striving centaurs locked together. Kauto led but Imperial Commander seemed to have him. At the post the two jockeys saluted each other and an extraordinary expectant chatter came from the grandstand. Whatever happened it had been desperately close. Madison du Berlais was a distant 24 lengths away in third. Imperial Commander had run the race of his life but the photo showed that the champion was back where he belongs.
Afterwards Ruby Walsh said “this is not just the best horse I have ridden but the best I have ever seen .” Paul Nichols said that Kauto Star had needed the race and how much he was looking forward to a 4th King George. There was no time for the two of them to say that next Saturday they (and we) will be going through the same process with Denman in the Hennessy. Don’t count on a formality .