For Kauto Star to be retired yesterday, just 11 days after another paragon, should prompt due circumspection in assessing his own place in the Turf pantheon. Certainly, those who glibly saluted Frankel as "the greatest ever" on the Flat will surely feel abashed in according Kauto Star equivalent status in the history of steeplechasing, even with the customary rider "since Arkle". The sport incorrigibly anoints its latest champion as the best. In at least one respect, however, Kauto Star's career can be soberly acclaimed as an enduring benchmark – and "enduring" is very much the word.
Nobody was surprised that Paul Nicholls and Clive Smith, his trainer and owner respectively, have agreed not to persevere with Kauto Star as he approaches his 13th birthday. But it is precisely his longevity that sets the horse apart, above all in registering that staggering fifth success in the King George VI Chase last Christmas. He won 16 Grade One prizes in all, albeit his final appearance in March proved an anticlimax, pulled up by halfway as he sought a third Cheltenham Gold Cup.
Kauto Star could be a spectacular jumper, especially when Ruby Walsh made up his mind for him, but had been lucky to recover from a crashing fall in the 2010 Gold Cup. Many then began to fear that connections were pushing their luck, as he plodded into podium finishes at Cheltenham and Kempton behind a new champion, Long Run. Nicholls was duly ecstatic, then, over a comeback that triggered joyous scenes at Haydock last November.
"His 2009 King George was breathtaking, but the raw emotion at Haydock will live longest in my memory," Nicholls said yesterday. "I had to hold myself together to stop myself being in floods of tears that day." Walsh paid tribute to his resilience. "He came back from hard races and heavy falls," the horse's regular rider said. "He just kept coming back, and getting back up to Grade One level again. He was a wonderful horse to have in your life."
Though the door had been left ajar to another King George, yesterday's decision was widely received with relief and gratitude. "Sometimes you have to listen to your head and your heart, and both told me retirement was the only option," Nicholls explained in his Betfair blog. "You are a long time retired, particularly if you are as exuberant, intelligent and inquisitive as this great horse. But, knowing Kauto, he would be coming back in at the age of 14 still looking and working brilliantly, and giving us that burning question to answer. Delaying would probably have been just selfishness and stubbornness on my part – the equivalent of a football manager desperately clinging on to his best, if ageing player."
Nicholls was always somewhat defensive of Kauto Star's reputation, understandably so when you consider the way he contributed to the trainer's own rise – and measured his mastery. "Kauto is signing off in full health and after a season in which he proved so many people wrong," Nicholls stressed. "He looks and feels as vibrant as ever. But deep down we know he has done enough, and in some ways I think we have to protect him from himself.
"Kauto is a public horse, every bit as much as Desert Orchid, and that had to be a factor in the decision. And while it would have been brilliant to go out on a high, I don't think anyone at Cheltenham last March would view his final appearance as a failure. The spontaneous applause from the crowd genuinely lifted the spirits of all the team here. Disappointment was immediately replaced by pride – and that is the overwhelming emotion I feel when looking at the horse."
Stellar overdrive: Kauto Star's world record 16 Grade One wins
1. Tingle Creek Chase Sandown 2m, 3.12.05: by 1.5 lengths
2. Betfair Chase Haydock 3m, 18.11.06: by 17 lengths
3. Tingle Creek Chase Sandown 2m, 2.12.06: by 7 lengths
4. King George VI Chase Kempton 3m, 26.12.06: by 8 lengths (from Exotic Dancer)
5. Gold Cup Cheltenham 3m 2f, 16.3.07: by 2.5 lengths (from Exotic Dancer)
6. Betfair Chase Haydock 3m, 24.11.07: by 0.5 length
7. King George VI Chase Kempton 3m, 26.12.07: by 11 lengths (from Our Vic)
8. Ascot Chase 2m5f, 16.2.08: by 8 lengths
9. Champion Chase Down Royal 3m, 1.11.08: by 11 lengths
10. King George VI Chase Kempton 3m, 26.12.08: by 8 lengths (from Albertas Run)
11. Gold Cup Cheltenham 3m 2f, 13.03.09: by 13 lengths (from Denman)
12. Betfair Chase Haydock 3m, 21.11.09: by a nose
13. King George VI Chase Kempton 3m, 26.12.09: by 36 lengths (from Madison Du Berlais)
14. Champion Chase Down Royal 3m, 6.11.10: by 4 lengths
15. Betfair Chase Haydock 3m, 19.11.11: by 8 lengths
16. King George VI Chase Kempton 3m: by 1.25 lengths (from Long Run)