From a racecourse to a golf course and back to the racecourse. For Kauto Star's owner, there has been an almost spooky symbiosis between the two sports he loves. Clive Smith's business is fairways and greens; his first was at Hawthorn Hill, between Windsor and Maidenhead. In view of current events, it is more than fitting that the verdant acres that launched the venture that now funds the Gold Cup favourite and his Paul Nicholls stablemates once hosted steeplechases.
In Chris Pitt's excellent history book A Long Time Gone, which charts the rise and demise of now-defunct British tracks, the chapter on Hawthorn Hill, established in 1888, ends with the perfunctory information that the course was sold "in the early 1980s and is now a golf course with little sign of its former life remaining".
That may be, but nonetheless the part it has played is now unpickably woven into the fabric of racing. Smith's creation, development and management of public golf courses proved hugely successful and although Hawthorn Hill has since been sold, he still has the two that followed, near Camberley.
He named his first horse Hawthorn Hill Lad and after that Jenny Pitman-trained hurdler won his first two races, at Wincanton and Cheltenham in 1988, he was hooked. Over time, the golf courses paid for more horses and the distinctive green, yellow and purple silks they carry were inspired by the colours of the club where their owner was once captain, Camberley Heath.
Smith, 64, once played off four and is now a nine-handicapper. He is now finding the newer hobby as wholly absorbing as the original one and speaks with a slight pang of regret that he has come to it relatively late. "If I hadn't got into golf, maybe life would have taken a different turn," he said. "I think I might have ended up as a trainer. It's a business I really think I'd enjoy, the planning, the buzz, the whole thing."
Until the coming of Kauto Star, Smith's best-known horse was the tough Royal Auclair, runner-up in the 2005 Grand National. The chestnut was first with Martin Pipe - with whom he won the 2002 Cathcart Cup - before his transfer to Nicholls. Like the trainer, Smith is a more than competent millionaire businessman who has grafted for his rewards and finds the set-up at Manor Farm entirely gemutlich. He welcomes being involved in boardroom decisions about his horses; indeed, his input into Kauto Star's Tingle Creek run was evident.
"I'd been with Martin for about 12 years and had some good times," he said, "but I felt perhaps I wanted more fun out of it. I called in to Paul's one day when I was down that way and the welcome I got was terrific. Moving was a no-brainer."
The purchase of Kauto Star, reported yesterday to be in splendid nick ahead of his tilt at the King George VI Chase, was another serendipitous series of events. It has been well-documented that Smith was outbid at auction by JP McManus for his first crack at the top of the market, Garde Champetre, and settled instead for Kauto Star. As it was the deal, brokered by agent Anthony Bromley, was completed only with difficulty as the horse's French trainer wriggled, desperate not to lose what was then the best four-year-old hurdler in France.
Smith still remembers the thrill of his new acquisition's first victory in his colours, when he ran right away from Foreman in a novices chase at Newbury two years ago. "Everything that has happened this season has been tremendously exciting," he said, "but that first win was some buzz. He showed terrific speed as he went straight past Foreman and you could see then that there was something extra-special there. Paul and Ruby [Walsh] were almost jumping up and down. And he's proved that that impression was entirely correct."
The tall, white-faced bay is well on the way to taking his place among the greats on the sport's pantheon. "You almost dare not think of such things," added Smith, "but he could be one of the real greats. He's a quick-silver jumper, he goes two miles or three miles, and he's still only six."
Smith takes massive pride in his young horse's progress. But then, he is used to the pursuit of excellence. Another of his achievements ties up golf with his other great passion, horsepower in the form of vintage Lagondas, of which he owns 1930 2-litre and 1929 3-litre models.
He is founder of the Lagonda Trophy, an annual tournament for top amateur golfers played at the Gog Magog course near Cambridge. "Some real good people have won it," he said. "Like Lee Westwood and Luke Donald. And Oliver Fisher, who won at 15 and has just turned pro. Look out for him - he's another Kauto Star."
NB: From Dawn To Dusk
(Newbury 12.50)Reuse content