Physically and emotionally, Boxing Day at the races is a release valve. Extended families break free of the festive fug, and discover – in crisp weather, hot whisky, and a few bets – perfect relief from the stupor of too much food, too little fresh air and, no doubt, too many resented obligations. This time, however, the big meeting at Kempton instead threatens to bring simmering irritations to a head, with years of stifled animosity finally exploding in some orgy of home truths.
At the very least, students of body language will read plenty in the deportment of two men who have, in years past, shared euphoria and elation at this same venue, on this same day – but who have now given public vent to the antipathy that plainly festered between them.
Paul Nicholls and Clive Smith, as his trainer and owner respectively, will be returning to see Kauto Star lead the parade in the William Hill King George VI Chase – a race he won for a record fifth time last year, the apogee of what proved to be his final campaign. The old horse will also be honoured by the big novice race on the card, hitherto known as the Feltham Chase. But all these nostalgic formalities could well be undermined by an excruciating want of bonhomie between the two guests of honour.
An increasing froideur had notoriously divided Nicholls and Smith in the evening of Kauto Star's career. Any sadness they felt, in agreeing a few weeks ago that he had reached the end of the road, was doubtless leavened by relief that they would no longer be obliged to speak to each other. But one last conversation remained necessary, over the best way for Kauto Star to pass his retirement – and it has proved one too many.
Nicholls was hoping that Smith would leave the horse at Ditcheat, where he could continue to warm the hearts of those who had tended him, daily, for the last eight years. But Smith resolved that Kauto Star, rising 13, might yet have a competitive future in dressage or eventing, and decided that he should go to Laura Collett, a young eventer, for assessment. Collett would be assisted by Yogi Breisner, a jumping guru respected in both the racing and equestrian fraternities.
Nicholls, adamant that Kauto Star is not cut out for his projected new vocation, barely disguised his disgust. On Tuesday, after a meeting with his senior staff, he rang Smith and told him to bring forward the horse's scheduled departure by a couple of weeks. Fairly inconsequential, in itself, this calculated gesture represented one last attempt to assert the rights of those affronted by Smith's plans. If the horse was to leave, it would be on their terms.
To judge from the tears shed in his yard on Tuesday, that seems to have proved the coldest of comforts. Some of those aggrieved by the horse's premature exit presumed Smith was to blame. In fact, it had been their own boss who had acted first – apparently with the intention of abbreviating their distress.
If they found that logic strange, then they will recognise that Nicholls has always been exceptionally thin-skinned about Kauto Star, whose rise to the top dovetailed with his own. On more than one occasion, the joy prompted by one of the great modern steeplechasers was tempered by an unduly triumphal tone in his trainer, emotionally rebuking "all the knockers".
In turn, of course, Nicholls knew all along where he might end up with the horse's owner. Smith had first arrived at his yard with Royal Auclair, removed from Martin Pipe – even though Nicholls' predecessor as champion trainer had saddled the horse to win at the Cheltenham Festival. It is hardly as if that sort of thing is uncommon. Jim Lewis abandoned Henrietta Knight for Nicholls after she had won him three Cheltenham Gold Cups with Best Mate.
But if their patrons can be breathtakingly cynical, the same is true of trainers. Anyone with intimate experience of their business will have seen owners treated with utter ruthlessness. Trainers constantly need to renew their stock, and very big cheques to underwrite that process. They know perfectly well that the majority of horses will not justify their cost, and so become hardened to writing off their own investment of charm and trust in disillusioned clients.
But horsemen sometimes feel a still deeper contempt for the patron who does enjoy dividends on the track. They are repelled by the vanity of the owner who seizes the bridle from the groom, in order to lead a horse into the winner's enclosure – and, in many cases, by the ignorance of businessmen for whom thoroughbreds are little more than luxury goods, to show off to their pals. They think of all the mornings when they have broken ice in buckets, unrolled bandages, brushed tails. And they think of the one morning, every few weeks, when an owner shows up at the yard, sips a glass of fizz and nervously pats his pride and joy upon the neck.
Kauto Star was himself a very expensive import from France, and paid off in spectacular fashion. Ultimately, however, those who have secured his fulfilment must accept the prerogative of the guy who pays the bills to do just as he wishes – whatever gratitude or decorum might suggest. After all, Smith has found experts who tell him that his aspirations are perfectly legitimate.
Both camps wish only for Kauto Star to engage in a happy, active retirement. Boxing Day is unlikely to obtain a literally pugilistic quality. But it will be to late then. Mutual indignation has already guaranteed collective indignity.
Star could make transition but Olympics beyond reach
Kauto Star could be competing in international dressage competitions within three years but has no hope of making the Olympics, according to Team GB's chairman of selectors.
One bookmaker has offered 66-1 against the two-time Cheltenham Gold Cup winner claiming gold in Rio, but David Trott, director of international teams for British Dressage, says the 12-year-old is starting the sport too late to be considered.
"It will not be that difficult for him to make the transition," said Trott, who is also a dressage trainer. "He is not going to win an Olympic medal – that takes many years of training and age is not on his side – but he could reach international level within three years.
"It will take him six months to learn the basics, it is really a question of teaching him to use different muscles. It will also take a bit of time to get him supple because racehorses have long hind legs and do not have to bend as much as dressage horses.
"A discipline such as canter pirouettes might be difficult as it involves smaller strides. But to be such a good racehorse he has got to be intelligent as well as athletic so there is no reason why he shouldn't learn quickly.
"It is not that common for racehorses to make the switch but I am delighted the owner has decided to give him a second career. It is great publicity for dressage. After the risks involved with jumping at speed, this is something he can do for a number of years with minimal risk of injury."
Chris McGrath's Nap
Subtle Difference (4.30 Kempton) Found 7f round Wolverhampton too sharp on her handicap debut, but was not beaten far.
Marshal Zhukov (3.20 Taunton) Unexposed young chaser likely to enjoy this drop in distance.
One to watch
Nur Jahan (David Lanigan) Proved in need of her debut at Lingfield last week, caught flat-footed before cottoning on and running into midfield.Reuse content