James Lawton: Vintage Kauto Star gets better with age and makes everyone feel young again
He defined himself once again. It bestowed the thrill of being in the presence of greatness
With the greatest respect and all due honour to the best and the most courageous of his two-legged rivals, who could not say as we headed out of this old and often disillusioning year that nothing had made the blood run quite like it did at the summons of Kauto Star yesterday?
There are all kinds of champions, human and equine, who claim a piece of the nation's affection, but some of them offer a special gift. It is the idea that you are never done. That you can grow strong at those places which have been broken and, in the opinion of some, irreparably.
In the case of Kauto Star, though, we can be grateful that this has never been the notion of two magnificent horsemen – trainer Paul Nicholls and jockey Ruby Walsh.
Both of them had operated at the highest levels of their professional brilliance to help the great horse to its fifth King George VI Chase – a performance so majestically flawless that Nicholls deserved some kind of extra reward for restraint when he declared merely that if his charge keeps something like its current form into early spring it will be "the one to beat" at Cheltenham.
Imagine that, more glory down in that fabled valley in the West Country. Epic enough that success would be Kauto Star's third triumph in the Gold Cup, the defining race for the best and most refined of chasers. But then you consider the meaning of such a success, the historic significance of the achievement. For many it was astonishing enough that the great horse became the first to regain the Blue Riband of the jumps back in 2009 – a year after being apparently broken by the ferocious strength and will of Denman.
Yesterday we saw Kauto Star administer a second dose of chastisement to his conqueror of last spring, the fine young champion Long Run. Did we say that Kauto had re-exerted a champion's right to produce some of the best of himself when most hard judges would say that his race had been run and that the old glory could never be freshened?
Yes, he did that but also something more. He revealed beyond a sliver of doubt that indeed he had the quality of a fine wine. He had got better with the years. He ran as imperiously as he had ever done and, so crucially, he jumped as well if not better than ever before.
In some ways this was most stunning of all because it is so easy to remember the perceived handicap that so many believed would betray a potentially superb career. Kauto Star shone brilliantly with his turn of hoof but so often he terrorised not his rivals but his admirers when he came to the fences.
When he won his first Gold Cup at Cheltenham – leading home Exotic Dancer by two and a half lengths – he brought a strangled groan to the valley when he tackled the last fence not with the leap of a Pegasus but more the belligerence of a wart-hog. It sounds absurd, but that is what it looked like to his most passionate admirers when he smashed his way through the last obstacle.
Yesterday Kauto Star was impeccable in the air. Sometimes he floated over the fences as though they did not exist. Sometimes he overcame them with an easily marshalled power that must have brought dismay to the heart of Sam Waley-Cohen who was tracking him so attentively on a Long Run which seemed to be gathering his strength going into the last.
The great jockey Walsh simply glowed, at the finish and coming into the winner's enclosure. Yes, the super horse jumped with flawless panache but then he had been doing it for some time and, as Walsh said, he had "got the hang of it".
What he had in most abundance, though, was the instincts of a born winner. Even if you had invested in the youth and the strength of Long Run or maybe the known brilliance of Master Minded or the promise of third-placed Captain Chris, the certainty that Kauto Star retained those powers that came to him at birth overwhelmed every consideration including the pecuniary.
No, you couldn't really put a price on the gift that Kauto Star brought to a grey afternoon at Kempton Park. It delivered the uplift that always comes when you see a fine champion defining himself once more. It bestowed the thrill of being in the presence of greatness. It made you marvel all over again at the sight of so much concentrated courage and grace.
Not least, it also made you think of the spring in that Gloucestershire valley. So what else could you say, as you punched the air, but, thanks, Champ. Thanks for making everyone feel, for a little while at least, young again.
Mourinho MkII on a different planet
Whatever else Andre Villas-Boas achieves this season, it appears that he is beyond satire, even, it seems, a visit from the men in the white coats. He has absorbed, utterly, at least one lesson from his brilliant mentor Jose Mourinho. It is to paint the world entirely in his most preferred colours.
The results, notwithstanding Chelsea's impressive reclamation – at least before yesterday's stumble against a Fulham who were not just beaten but eviscerated by Manchester United last week – of a season which so recently threatened wholesale ruin, have been outlandish, if not completely hilarious.
He was in especially bizarre form after last week's draw at White Hart Lane which, while distinguished by the force and coherence of a powerful second-half performance by Chelsea, was perhaps not the most brilliant football seen there since the days of Mackay and Blanchflower, White and Jones, or come, to think of it, the last time Luka Modric, Gareth Bale and Rafael Van der Vaart were seriously in the mood.
You could hardly blame Villas-Boas (above) for the perspective by-pass – Blanchflower and Co were, after all, working their magic a decade and a half before he was born – but what he said still made you wonder quite which was his home planet. "Now that we have found our route – and at Spurs we played it to an extent that was massive," said Mourinho MarkII, "it was an honour and a privilege to see this team play football."
This wasn't his only step beyond what some might say was football reality. "I can never say," Villas-Boas added, "that our performances against Arsenal and Liverpool were bad ones. They were good ones but the events of the games took us to defeats rather than wins."
This, though, was surely inevitable because the most memorable "events" of all three setbacks were examples of defence so catastrophic that even he could see that his "high-line" was turning into the most ill-considered defensive strategy since the French War Ministry came up with the Maginot Line.
Villas-Boas has, plainly, a huge job to do at Stamford Bridge and there is no doubt that he has assets of nerve and self-belief without which he might as well have packed his bags for a return trip to Portugal some time ago.
However, there are also some disturbing tendencies, not least a failure to understand that his inability to face criticism from wherever it comes, including the club TV channel, is a flaw that has become worryingly pronounced.
Certainly some of his reactions to it have made him look quite absurd.
He should perhaps take note of some of the most recent musings of Mourinho. While speaking of his long-term desire to return to England, the Special One allowed that the greatest of managers, and even those touched by genius, will always depend ultimately on the talent of the players who go out on to the field. It is an understanding that his former assistant has yet to express – at least perfectly.
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