Farewell to the retiring Kauto Star, jump racing’s durable champion

For the second time in less than a fortnight, British racing said goodbye to an all-time great on Wednesday and, though the Flat and National Hunt racing could almost be different sports, the careers of Frankel and Kauto Star help to explain why. Frankel was an extraordinary racehorse, but his brilliance was crammed into 26 months. By the time Frankel was foaled, on 11 February 2008, Kauto Star had won a Cheltenham Gold Cup, two King Georges and completed a perfect six-from-six campaign in 2006/07 which included four Grade One victories.

Yet Kauto Star’s racing career, technically at least, lasted a little longer, although he has not seen a racecourse since he was pulled up before the 10th fence in the Cheltenham Gold Cup in March. As with Istabraq, in similar circumstances in the Champion Hurdle 10 years earlier, there was loud applause for the departing hero even as the race itself left him behind. Only the greats are acclaimed in defeat as well as victory.

Flat horses have careers, but the best jumpers have eras and the seven-and-a-half years between Kauto Star’s first start in Britain, on 29 December 2004, and his last were as memorable as any that jumps racing has seen. Horses like Denman, Exotic Dancer, Imperial Commander and Long Run were there to push him, challenge him and sometimes beat him, but Kauto Star has seen most of them into retirement already and none were a serious threat when he was at his very best.

Kauto Star was already a veteran of 10 starts over hurdles in his native France by the time he was bought to race for Clive Smith and joined the Ditcheat stable of Paul Nicholls. Kauto Star’s time with Nicholls also marks out almost exactly his trainer’s rise to pre-eminence in National Hunt and his second full season at Ditcheat was also the campaign in which Nicholls finally wrestled the championship from Martin Pipe.

He has been the champion trainer every season since, though Kauto Star’s contribution to the initial breakthrough was modest. The horse’s first season in Britain ran to just two races, as he suffered an injury in defeat at Exeter in January 2005 which kept him off the track until the following November, but the race was still the one which marked him out as a potential champion.

Kauto Star was 12 lengths clear when he fell at the second-last, prompting Ruby Walsh, his blood pumping, to remount and set off after the new leader without his feet in the stirrups. Kauto Star was closing all the way to the line and was beaten by just a short-head.

To get so close after falling was the sign of a Grade One winner in waiting and the first of 16 victories at the highest level arrived the following December, when Kauto Star took the Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown, with Mick Fitzgerald, still three years away from retirement, in the saddle. But he was a faller again when 2-1 favourite for the Queen Mother Champion Chase at the 2006 Cheltenham Festival, before embarking on one of the greatest seasons in jumps history.

It started in the Old Roan Chase at Aintree, the first of just two runs in a handicap, when Kauto Star gave 9lb and a 21-length beating to Armaturk, who was a Grade One winner as a novice, and took in victories in the Betfair Chase, Tingle Creek, King George and Aon Chase before concluding with his first Gold Cup. That victory also earned his connections a £1m bonus put up by Betfair which, when added to prize-money winnings of nearly £2.4m, puts his career earnings ahead of Frankel’s total of just under £3m.

Kauto Star would have won the £1m again the following season had he not succumbed to the brutal gallop set by Denman in the Gold Cup, but that allowed Kauto Star to set another record the following season when he became the first horse to regain the Gold Cup after losing it. The King George victory by a distance in December 2009 was the race that established the true depth of Kauto Star’s talent, but the second Gold Cup was about his durability and courage and an ability to keep returning to the heights, season after season.

For that reason, there was never any shame in Kauto Star’s rare moments of defeat and that resilience marked his final achievements, too. Retirement seemed imminent when he was pulled up at Punchestown in May 2011, at the end of a disappointing season following a horrible fall in the 2010 Gold Cup. But he came back to win yet another Betfair Chase and then a record-breaking fifth King George barely seven months later.

There were so many highs and occasional lows in the Kauto Star era that his career was as much about the whole as any individual race. He ran at seven Cheltenham Festivals and won 19 of his 31 steeplechases. From start to finish, his was a very special talent to excite and amaze.