On course for superstardom: the making of a favourite

Triumph at Kempton yesterday confirmed Kauto Star as the outstanding horse of his generation. Racing journalist of the year Chris McGrath tells the story of a thoroughly modern thoroughbred

Of all sports, steeplechasing shows most clearly that greatness is not achieved overnight, but by increments. Overnight sensations are purely that sensations, presentiments. They alert our instincts to something special. But the abiding moments are instead the final flourishes upon some magnificent edifice, an apex, a cupola. And anyone privileged enough to witness Kauto Star at Kempton yesterday will have recognised a defining moment in the career of one of the outstanding modern thoroughbreds.

His swaggering success in the King George VI Chase yesterday confirms Kauto Star as the brightest of beacons for horseracing, a sport desperately in need of succour after its recent, unnecessary trauma in the Old Bailey. The infamous "race-fixing" case, involving Kieren Fallon, proved to be without foundation. Just as happily, the same can no longer be said of the notion that Kauto Star is equipped to redeem all manner of iniquities, real or imagined.

For all the picaresque allure of so many racing folk, and the excellence of his own jockey and trainer, the emergence of Kauto Star restores the horse itself as the spur to sporting romance. When he won the same race last year, he was still an insolent, emerging talent. His jumping was sometimes horribly maladroit. But he went on to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup in March, and after a pardonable defeat on his reappearance, had reiterated his supremacy with an immaculate display at Haydock last month. He returned here as an odds-on favourite, and his ruthless performance carved him an indelible place in the steeplechasing pantheon.

This race, after all, has anointed many of the greats. As a ritual of the racing Christmas, it preserves the ghostly names against which Kauto Star must now be measured. Best Mate won it five years ago. Desert Orchid won it four times in five years. And back in 1965, there was Arkle himself, a champion still revered as without peer. But that could soon change, if Kauto Star keeps going at this rate. He is trained by a policeman's son named Paul Nicholls, cantering daily up an escarpment in the Mendips. It is not difficult to imagine the fleshy, rosy-cheeked Nicholls tucking into his Christmas turkey; rather harder, to remember that he once plied his trade, not terribly successfully, as a jockey. But since taking up training Nicholls has turned his yard in Ditcheat into the strongest in the land, something of a lone bastion against the marauding Irish at Cheltenham.

And, remarkably, the horses stabled there include the only one, anywhere, still being treated as an authentic rival to Kauto Star. Denman, while still short of the Himalayas, left the foothills far behind when thrashing his rivals at Newbury last month, and tomorrow samples a new altitude in a race at Leopardstown, outside Dublin. The two horses both just seven years old, still maybe two years short of their natural peak are stabled in adjacent stalls, under the same rafters, under the same rustic, mossy tiles. They even have a grille in the wall between them.

For now, Nicholls himself remains in no doubt that Denman still has a long way to go if he is to match Kauto Star. But one bookmaker, Coral, cannot divide them, making them 6-4 joint-favourites for the Gold Cup, and Nicholls acknowledges that not even he can know how the match will turn out, until and unless it comes off. "I know one thing though," he said in the winner's enclosure yesterday. "It'll be great for racing if they both get there, looking the way they do now."

And that is very much the point. Kauto Star, on his own, could define a horseracing epoch. A legitimate pretender would gild it. But the morale and self-esteem of the entire sport can depend on the notoriously brittle legs of its showpiece performers.

Racing has recently had to wrestle with its conscience over the death of one or two cherished animals, notably George Washington at the Breeders' Cup in New Jersey a couple of months ago. And as Kauto Star stood in the winner's enclosure, it was impossible not to sense the visceral, mortal aspects of the icon: he stood panting, the steam rising off his flanks, a filigree of veins raised through his dark flesh. In a sense, he is no longer the property of Clive Smith. He now belongs to the public. Smith, rest assured, will again be trousering his share of a 1m bonus from Betfair if he can add the Gold Cup to this prize, and the one they sponsored at Haydock. But every time Kauto Star steps on to the racecourse, every time he risks a fence, he will now do so as a precious communal asset. The greater the talent, the more precarious is the burden the tighter the tension, between racing's joys and fears.

For now, disillusion seems a remote prospect. Touch wood, his jumping problems seem a thing of the past. Last season, he developed an alarming habit of galloping straight through the final fence. He did it here at Kempton, he did it at Cheltenham, and in between he did it at Newbury. Such is the horsepower within, he never looked like falling. But before the Gold Cup one respected Irish trainer, veteran of some notable Cheltenham successes, privately assessed him as "a brainless fecker".

Nicholls himself has been adamant throughout that the horse has the basic soundness of technique typical of jumpers educated, as was Kauto Star in his youth, in France. And as luck should have it, he is ridden by one of the great steeplechase jockeys in history, Ruby Walsh. Yesterday was only the second time the Irishman has ridden since dislocating a shoulder in a grotesque fall at Cheltenham in November. With his prematurely frosted hair, he might seem aged by his responsibilities. But the horse could not be in more assured hands, and Walsh's involvement seals the messianic sense in his emergence.

Standing outside Kauto Star's stable last winter, Clifford Baker weighed his potential against the many good horses he has ridden. Baker is right hand man to Nicholls, and exercises Kauto Star every day. "I think he's potentially the best we've seen," he said quietly. It seemed quite a statement, measured against the Gold Cup winners, the Champion Chase winners, that Baker had helped to prepare in his time. And then, softly but firmly, he added: "I mean 'we' as a country."

Things can still go wrong. With horses, ultimately, they usually do. But for now Kauto Star seems a bona fide Christmas miracle. Racing can seem as arcane as any astrology, and probably as pointless. But its rudiments could hardly be more accessible. And a horse like this will not be recognised only by the Turf's sages or Magi. As he was led back into his stable last night at root, an unwitting brute, making straight for the familiar, animal comfort of his manger he had the homage of millions.

The steeplechasers to remember

Arkle

Quite possibly the first steeplechaser to truly capture the public's imagination with a string of incredible victories during the early 1960s including winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup three years' running, the King George VI Chase, the Irish Grand National and two Hennessy Gold Cups. During his first victory at Cheltenham Arkle won the race by 20 lengths and his legendary rivalry with the English gelding Mill House brought an adoring legion of fans. Career cut short at the age of nine following a fall in the King George VI chase at Kempton. He was put down in 1970 because of arthritis.

Desert Orchid

In the late 1980s Desert Orchid notched up a series of impressive wins including a legendary 15-length victory over Door Latch in the King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day 1986. Known to his fans as Dessie, the grey gelding is the only horse in history to win the King George VI Chase four times. Owned by Richard and Midge Burridge, Desert Orchid won 34 out of 70 races amassing an impressive 650,000 prize money. Remained popular even after he was retired in December 1991, appearing at fundraising events and even in the late Queen Mother's 90th birthday parade. Died in 2004.

Best Mate

Best Mate was the first steeplechaser since Arkle in the 1960s to win the Cheltenham Gold Cup three times consecutively. Never outside of the top two in any competitive race, he cleared every fence and hurdle he ever came across. Best Mate died in November 2005 from a suspected heart attack. He had been competing in the William Hill Haldon Gold Cup at Exeter. Trained by Henrietta Knight and Terry Biddlecombe, he was taken to victory in the Gold Cup by Jim Culloty. A statue of Best Mate was unveiled at the Cheltenham Festival, and he was made one of the elite 12 in the Cheltenham Hall of Fame in March.

Jerome Taylor and Amol Rajan

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