James Lawton: Raw power proves too much for brave but fallen Star
A horse who had come here for a coronation began to dwindle before our eyes
Saturday 15 March 2008
Sweet dreams, Kauto Star, back in your box in Somerset. You can sleep easily because nothing you did here made anyone feel any less for you.
There was just this compelling reason to think so much more than we once did of the big guy who lives next door.
This has to be the requiem for the equine hero who found out finally that you cannot always wing your way to glory. Sometimes there is a sterner examination. It applies maximum pressure to every aspect of your talent. And, among other things, it can shape your place in history.
Denman did more than beat his lionised stablemate here yesterday in the taut, damp air of the Gloucestershire valley that so regularly separates the merely talented from the makers of legend. He set a withering standard of exhilarating and, on this day of relentlessly building drama, unmatchable power.
Harry Findlay, the gambler and part-owner of the Irish-bred eight-year-old, put it more bluntly even before the formalities of victory and defeat were over. He said: "We've done what we had to do ... we've broken Kauto Star."
Denman laid out the requirements for the horse who had captured the imagination of the nation – and they were simply too hard, too demanding.
When he put in a series of power-filled jumps going into the second circuit, you could see that Kauto Star, stride by stride, was already being pushed to his very limits.
A majestic winner on his last two outings at Kempton Park and Ascot, a horse who for many had come here for a coronation rather than a challenge, began to dwindle before our eyes. His jockey, Ruby Walsh, who had been so steadfast in his faith despite the chance to switch to the rising star of Paul Nicholls' stable, tried desperately to preserve some rhythm. But as Kauto's stride necessarily quickened, his jumping became ragged.
The 65,000 crowd who waited for the start, so hushed they might have been in some great cathedral on the most solemn of occasions – perhaps, ironically, the state funeral of a national hero – believed that they were about to see a great race, maybe even something of a rerun of the 44-year-old epic between the most breathtaking horse Cheltenham has ever seen, Arkle, and a mighty defending champion, Mill House.
However, if the expectant horde did not see a great race, they did marvel at a great performance.
It was so elemental, so irresistible in its force that one stunned observer, who once had his own moment of sensational impact when he knocked down Muhammad Ali, agreed that it was something that could indeed be placed within the borders of his own brutal sport.
"No, it wasn't Muhammad Ali – it was George Foreman," said Sir Henry Cooper.
What the old fighter had in mind, perhaps, was the time 35 years ago when Foreman draped Ali's great adversary Joe Frazier across the canvas in a title fight in Kingston, Jamaica. That was one classic example of what happens when hugely gifted opponents bring two styles, two different ways of reaching the same end, to a single contest, and one triumphs utterly.
Denman's surge was helped by the powerful running of a third Nicholls horse, Neptune Collonges; the pace was keen and when Mick Fitzgerald brought the outsider to within a head of Kauto in the fight for second place, the stable had, remarkably, claimed the first three places.
It was the most impressive training feat here since Michael Dickinson claimed the first five Gold Cup places when his Bregawn won in 1983. The elegantly dressed Dickinson is a feted horseman in America now, but the depth of his feelings for the old English game surfaced in the unsaddling enclosure.
"This was a great performance – and a great day for English racing," he said. "It was wonderful that neither of them fell. We wanted to know who was best and we saw it today, but maybe in the future, perhaps on different going, who knows? Kauto might come back and do something."
That was the view of a knowing professional, but maybe it was out of sync with the crowd who threw their hats in the air when Sam Thomas, who rode in the gift of a Walsh who became angry when he was challenged about his decision to stick with Kauto, brought home the new champion by seven lengths. Walsh embraced the No 2 jockey and kissed him, but you could see on his face that he had suffered a defeat that would linger in his bones for quite some time.
How will it reverberate in the once serenely confident nature of Kauto Star? Will he indeed sleep as easily as we would hope, this fallen but still honourable hero? Nicholls merely said that that neither Denman nor Kauto Star would reappear this season. The battle had been fought and resolved and certainly it would not have been easy to find too many supporters of the Dickinson view that somewhere along the way, perhaps here next March, Kauto might just shine again.
Walsh felt too embattled to endorse such optimism, conceding that when Denman injected a little pace on the first fence on the back straight he had the sinking feeling that it was time to pronounce that a king was dead and a new one was about to be crowned.
For Kauto loyalists it was the hardest of blows, because this in their minds was something more than an extremely talented jumper, perhaps the best since the unforgettable Arkle.
He was an idea that anything could be achieved if you had enough courage – enough talent. Kauto Star did not lack for courage in his moments of defeat. He made a small impression on his triumphant, irresistible next-door neighbour, but it could be no more than a gesture.
Denman had galloped to his own terrain. He was untouchable, awesome. He ran a hero into the ground.
He may not be Arkle, no more than, it turns out, was Kauto, but then no great horse's credentials can ever have been flourished with quite such hunger and such power. He did not win the Gold Cup. He devoured it.
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