Chris McGrath: In praise of the golden generation of the Turf

Inside Track Special: If Kauto Star wins an unprecedented fourth King George VI Stakes today, it would cap an unrivalled year for racing

He has won the race three times already, and should he become the first to do so for a fourth consecutive year – surpassing even Desert Orchid – you will hear Kauto Star today saluted once again as one of the authentic greats of jump racing.

This time, however, he returns to Kempton not just as the odds-on favourite for the King George VI Chase, the midwinter steeplechasing championship, but to add his priceless, authenticating signature to a masterpiece. For here is a horse well qualified to thaw any hearts cold enough to resist the claims of 2009 as a year with few precedents in Turf history.

Not that there can remain too many Scrooges, still prepared to mutter "humbug" at such a heady vintage both on the Flat and over jumps. Sea The Stars alone guaranteed this as one of the most significant years of the modern era. At the same time, however, any objective student of the sport retains a duty of circumspection whenever the word "great" is bandied about quite so freely.

Of the horses in training during the past 12 months, you could barely confine to the fingers of one hand those routinely saluted for deeds redolent of immortality. First and foremost Sea The Stars himself, the untouchable colossus of the European Flat season. Over the Atlantic, two fillies, Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra, both did things to colts that have either never been done before, or not for an awfully long time. Then, over jumps, you have these two next-door neighbours, Kauto Star and Denman, housed in adjacent stalls in Mendip country, taking the notion of "keeping up with the Joneses" to uncharted extremes.

And that is before granting any credence, as many do, to other claims made this year – if not quite reckoned incontrovertible, at least owning a plausible veneer. Goldikova, for instance, produced one of the landmark Breeders' Cup performances barely an hour before Zenyatta made it look pedestrian at Santa Anita. In midsummer, Yeats became the first horse to win four Ascot Gold Cups. Then there was St Nicholas Abbey, already rated one of the outstanding two-year-olds of the past couple of decades. Back over jumps, meanwhile, it is hard to believe any bumper horse has ever dominated the discipline with quite the swagger of Dunguib, now raising pulses over hurdles too.

But you can't simultaneously propose so many different horses as exceptional, without acknowledging a heightened burden of proof. If you insist on describing every other champion as the best of his type since Pegasus, you soon defeat your purpose. If they're all monsters, none of them are.

Perhaps, in this age of instant, shallow fame, we can no longer be bothered with substance when style will take us as far as we care to go. Have we become too excitable, too credulous? Too mendacious, even?

The first point to make is that comparisons between generations will always have limited scientific rigour. For all the excellence of professional arbiters, most of us measure giants of past and present by instinct rather than mathematics. For instance, even the most scrupulous "handicapping" system can make little allowance for the indolence of a horse like Sea The Stars, whose superiority always seemed masked by an inclination to take it easy once he had hit the front.

This is why the replication of the sport's greatest tests is so important. Even if you can't exactly gauge the relative merits of the opposition, the demands made of a champion will disclose something of his physiological competence. Sea The Stars, for instance, won a sequence of big races, month by month, never previously embraced. Denman's success in the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury last month, meanwhile, earned him an automatic place in the handicap pantheon, where class is proven against the brute disadvantage of weight conceded to inferiors.

Desert Orchid did that as well, in his time. But now his dominion is set to be usurped by Kauto Star, already the first horse ever to retrieve the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Many of us wondered whether his upstart neighbour, Denman, had broken his spirit in 2008. After all, the perennial failure of past winners to recover from defeat implied that the race left too indelible a mark. Yet here he was in March, prancing alone up the hill like a young, innocent horse.

Due credit must be acknowledged here to Paul Nicholls, the man who also trains Denman. For it stands to reason that improvements in facilities, veterinary care and training methods might allow horses to explore potential beyond the reach of their ancestors. Martin Pipe, the outsider who dominated the sport for so many years before finally being overtaken by Nicholls, made the simple but startling discovery that he could make his horses fitter than rivals relying on traditional methods. His horses set off in the lead and gradually exhausted their pursuers.

That raised the bar for everyone else, who duly emulated his techniques. It is a bit of a sacred cow, this, for those jealous of the undoubted genius of past masters. Clearly their superiority, among their peers, is not diminished by the subsequent evolution of their calling. None the less there remains a sacrilegious implication, even for Arkle himself. Whatever the breed's past champions might have achieved, granted modern benefits, is it possible that horses of freakish natural prowess were able to impose themselves more easily on rivals that were not trained, fed, medicated or ridden to full capacity?

Moreover, the governing principle of the thoroughbred is one of genetic improvement. Only someone like Hitler controls eligibility for human reproduction. With horses, however, the right to breed is restricted only to the fastest and strongest colts, in unsqueamish fidelity to eugenics.

Of course, this only lends commercial formality to Nature's designated role for the herd leader. And the reality is that our own greed and myopia ensure that we do not do this terribly scrupulously. The desire to make a fast buck has allowed all manner of physically flawed animals to dilute the gene pool.

Certainly the relative stagnation in the times recorded by thoroughbreds – compared to the rate of improvement in those set by human athletes – discourages any arrogant assumptions about the advent of great horses, even in such peculiar clusters. After all, any improvement in the training of the best should also be matched in their victims. It is not as if Sea The Stars could only thrash Aidan O'Brien's best horses because they were not as well trained!

So while all professionals keep striving for improvement – breeders, trainers, vets, jockeys – it would probably be wrong to perceive anything more than a random privilege in the luminous performances witnessed in 2009. These could just be "London buses", albeit very quick ones. You wait for ages, and then several come along at once.

St Nicholas Abbey is already hot favourite for both the 2,000 Guineas and the Derby. Twenty years divided Sea The Stars, winner of both races, from the last colt equal to the double. On the other hand, Nijinsky, Mill Reef and Brigadier Gerard – those titans of another 20 years before – were all foaled within 13 months of one another.

Their memory should discourage any temptation to boastfulness in the present generation. Above all, there can be no resting on laurels. It was only last year, after all, that Zarkava was retired after her own Arc success ostensibly left her with "nothing to prove". Sea The Stars soon made that theory look pretty silly. In turn, Zenyatta needed barely a fortnight to make his own retirement seem premature.

Even the trade press, remember, had fostered the notion that it would have been "unfair" to ask Sea The Stars to crown his career at the Breeders' Cup. To which laughably precious suggestion only one, seasonal reproof remains possible. "Humbug."

A fine vintage: Horses who made 2009 a great year

*Sea The Stars

The first colt since Nashwan in 1989 to pull off the 2,000 Guineas-Derby double, he then continued on an unbeaten spree via Sandown, York, Leopardstown and finally the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe.

*Zenyatta

Crowned a record-breaking, immaculate career when taking on colts for the Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita – easily making it 14 out of 14, despite tailing off after a slow break.

*Rachel Alexandra

Became the first filly to win the Preakness Stakes since 1924 when beating Mine That Bird, the Kentucky Derby winner. Other sensational Grade One wins included margins of 20 and 19 lengths.

*Kauto Star

In March became the first horse ever to win back the Cheltenham Gold Cup, and again hopes to break new ground today with a fourth consecutive King George VI Chase.

*Denman

Scores level after consecutive Gold Cup duels with his stablemate, Kauto Star, and following heart problems last season, he bounced back with a historic weight-carrying performance at Newbury last month.

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