On page 52 of the i paper today, those who know much more about horseracing than I do have paid tribute to Kauto Star, twice winner of the Cheltenham Gold Cup, whose retirement at the age of 12 was announced yesterday.
Then again, you didn't need to know much about racing to fall in love with Kauto. It helped that he had matinee idol looks, with a brilliant white blaze cascading down his head, and he cut a striking figure, a magnificently athletic specimen who seemed to carry himself with an insouciant belief in his superiority. It says something when the retirement of a racehorse is announced on the national news, but manifestly Kauto was no ordinary horse, any more than Pegasus, Trigger or Joey (from War Horse) were.
So much was clear when, at Cheltenham last March, Kauto failed in his attempt to defy injury, history, and the odds to win his third Gold Cup and was pulled up. He carried the hopes and the cash of a significant proportion of the crowd that day, but as he trotted back to the paddock, there was no sense from the punters that they had been cheated.
A ripple of applause that started when the great champion came in view of the stands turned into a resounding cheer, which in turn became a standing ovation. For those of us who had followed him from the very start, when he won at Newbury in 2004, it was impossible to stifle a tear. It was an inglorious end to a racing career that was dripping in glory, but the relief that it was just a journey too far for his old chassis, and nothing more untoward than that, was overwhelming.
Even I, a veteran of many invoices from the Tote, saw something special in 2004, and I told anyone who would listen that Kauto was the horse of a generation. In nine years, he won £2,375,883 in prize money. I won rather less by betting on him, but my attachment to Kauto was not rooted in anything as grubby as that. To my eyes, he summed up the romance of a sport whose appeal has to be weighed against the way it puts its participants in harm's way. The occasional fall, and the habitual last fence stumble, revealed Kauto to be fallible, which of course made him all the more appealing, and the triumphs even more thrilling.
Paul Nicholls, Kauto's trainer, was eloquent yesterday in calling time on the horse. “We know he has done enough,” he said, “and in some ways we have to protect him from himself. And maybe ourselves, too.” By all accounts, Kauto is hale and hearty and the temptation for Nicholls and Clive Smith, the horse's owner, to chase history must have been great.
This is a tough, often unsentimental, dangerous sport – the winner of last year's Gold Cup, Synchronised, was killed in his very next race, a victim of Aintree's fences – and we must be thankful that the life of the greatest champion of all will come to a natural end.
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