This article was written by geegeez member, Kev Lane, on the occasion of Kauto Star’s fourth Betfair Chase, and is a fitting tribute to the horse, who sadly passed away on Tuesday.
The old man eased himself into his favourite armchair, scratched his head and rubbed his temples with his forefingers. He threw a small log onto the fire and watched as it was engulfed by the flames around it. He was in his eighties now but he still chopped a few small logs every day, as it stretched his muscles and got him out for some fresh air. It had been cold this November and he had needed his grandson to come around and chop the bigger logs up for him. The lad was enthusiastic and used the axe like he was trying to hit Graeme Swann over the pavilion roof.
“No, no, no,” said the old man on many occasions, “it’s all about rhythm, it should be an extension of your arm. Like this.” The old man motioned to the boy to show him how it was done. The lad was keen if a bit cheeky at times. He liked hearing stories from the past but once he said to his grandfather, “Why is it that the older a man gets, the faster he could run as a lad?” The old man smiled at that.
He looked into the dancing flames as the fire came to life, and the sharper, older memories came flooding back to him. He still had to pinch himself that it was late autumn 2041, a date that had seemed so far away when he was a younger man. A smile crossed his lips as he recalled that marvellous day thirty years ago. Was it really thirty years ago? It was at Haydock Park and the Lancashire course had never seen a day like it; racing had never seen a day like it. In one of the most competitive Betfair Chases for many a year, two past Gold Cup winners, Long Run and Kauto Star, went head to head with the previous season’s Hennessy winner, Diamond Harry; the previous months Charlie Hall Chase winner, Weird Al; and another progressive chaser in Time For Rupert, runner up in the Charlie Hall.
The memories of the race were still vivid but the old man wanted to savour each and every detail in his mind. There was the pre-race build up in the press with all of the trainers confident of a good run from their charges. Then there was the public, with divided opinions as to whether Kauto Star, by far and away the best chaser in a generation and possibly more but now eleven years old and rising twelve, should have been retired after a stirring performance in the Gold Cup but then failing to complete at Punchestown at the end of the previous season. And whether Long Run had improved over the summer and would justify not only his short price for this race but also his favouritism for the King George and the Gold Cup.
The old man smiled again as he remembered watching Kauto Star enter the parade ring to a loud cheering crowd and the waving of green, yellow and purple scarves. Was this judgement day for Kauto? Would a poor run see his retirement? The excitement built as race time approached and the horse looked well in himself.
He picked up the poker and jabbed at the charred billets, coaxing them back into life. Then he set his head back in the chair and closed his eyes. As the tapes went up Kauto was sent into an early lead, to roars from the crowd, but the finish was still three miles away and with the small matter of 18 fences to jump. From the very first, Kauto pinged the obstacles with an effortless elegance that belied his years, but was joined by Time For Rupert and then Diamond Harry. The race was run at a strong tempo and, after a circuit, Time For Rupert was starting to struggle.
The old man remembered thinking how well Kauto was going and could it, would it, be his day? Long Run was close up in third but making small mistakes that prevented him getting on terms. Rounding the final bend Kauto was the only horse left on the bridle with the rest of the field driven along. The crowd held its collective breath, not sure it could believe what it was witnessing. Four out and another good jump from Kauto but Long Run now moved into second place. Onlookers gawped open-mouthed as the Star breezed over the third from home with Long Run continuing to chase. Two out, and as there were signs of fatigue in the leader the old man remembered jumping up and down screaming at Ruby to urge him home.
Another fine jump at the last sealed it, Long Run bungling in second, and as Kauto Star lengthened up the run-in to score by a comfortable margin the crowd went into overdrive, well aware that they were witnessing something very, very special. When the enormity of the victory hit home, grown men had to bite their lips to control their emotions. As he walked into the winner’s enclosure the crowd roared the roof off the old stand and the cheers could be heard across the broad acres of Merseyside.
A tear escaped a closed eyelid and rolled down the old man’s cheek. As he wiped it away he recalled the volume of the crowd – Three Cheers for Kauto. Trainer Paul Nicholls was more animated than he had ever been and jockey Ruby Walsh wore a grin across his face that would have put the Cheshire Cat to shame. Such scenes, such elation, such joy. As the old man had got older it was the memories that kept him going. There were other horses and other great deeds that he would recall on other days, but none were more vivid in his mind than the day that the Star burned so brightly at Haydock all those years ago.