In the latest instalment of our new series, Matt Gardner focuses on Kauto Star's career in the Betfair Chase...
My memories of racing, the same as the majority of fans I expect, are punctuated by contests that for one reason or another - some trivial, others not - have lodged themselves in my mind. The 2001 Lonsdale Cup ensured that I gained an irrational dislike of Persian Punch as he denied Jardines Lookout by a head, my nine-year-old self furiously shouting home the runner-up. I never really took a shine to Best Mate either, mainly due to him thwarting Florida Pearl's attempt to gain back-to-back wins in the King George.
Some of the more titanic battles and performances that always stand up for attention when I feel like reminiscing are Galileo's sensational Derby victory, the skirmish between Duke of Marmalade and Papal Bull in the 2008 King George, Sea The Stars scything through the pack in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe and Frankel's simply phenomenal performance in the 2000 Guineas.
Then there's the memories some racing fans are less keen to talk about, like the race that's brought them closest to tears. I'm man enough to admit mine: it came when Kauto Star crossed the line in the 2011 Betfair Chase, although I will confess to being on the verge once more when he again demolished Long Run for the last of his five King George's. For sheer emotion it is Kauto Star's fourth and final triumph in the Betfair Chase that will go down in the minds of many as one of the most memorable performances ever witnessed on a racecourse.
It is well worth taking a look back at Kauto Star's previous three wins in this race as they form a significant part of the great horse's career. His 2006 triumph represented his first attempt at three miles, having landed the Tingle Creek in the previous season and won the Old Roan Chase on his seasonal reappearance, and his 17-length defeat of Beef Or Salmon cemented his place at the top of the chasing tree and was the real starting point of a phenomenal season that saw him take the Tingle Creek, King George, Aon Chase and Gold Cup, becoming the only horse ever to secure the Betfair Million bonus in the process.
When Kauto Star returned to Haydock in 2007 he was the dominant force rather than the young pretender, but even so he could manage only a much narrower margin of victory, holding off the firmly-handled Exotic Dancer by just half a length. Behind the unflattering margin of victory, however, was some truly breath-taking jumping, which would become a real hallmark of Kauto Star's career. He may well have gained another Betfair Chase in 2008 but for slithering upon landing at the last and unseating Sam Thomas, but there is no denying that he was not at his best in any case, although that can probably be attributed to him walloping the third-last obstacle.
Kauto Star bounced right back from that small spot of adversity to win at Kempton on Boxing Day and he then became the first horse to regain the Gold Cup having lost it in the previous season, and he returned to Haydock in 2009 to face-off against Ryanair Chase winner Imperial Commander. It was a top-class renewal, also featuring Hennessy Gold Cup winner Madison du Berlais and Guinness Gold Cup winner Notre Pere, but the latter-mentioned pair were no match for Kauto Star and Imperial Commander, who fought out an epic duel up the straight. It was hard work for Kauto Star, being two lengths down before Imperial Commander made a mistake at the third last, and he found himself with a clear advantage before his adversary battled back at the death, joining him on the line and forcing a photo.
Kauto Star traded at odds-against on Betfair as the judge deliberated, but the result was announced in favour of the two-time champion by the narrowest of margins.
Although he finished third in both the King George and Gold Cup and won the Down Royal Champion Chase (meaning that, for the first time since 2006, he would miss the Betfair Chase), 2010/11 can be fairly described as an annus horribilus for Kauto Star. Indeed, when he was pulled up at Punchestown (the first time in his career he'd been forced to do so) on his final start, it prompted calls for his retirement.
It was completely up in the air as to whether Kauto Star would take to the track again but, to their credit, Paul Nicholls and Clive Smith did not rush into a decision over the summer. Eventually it was decided that Kauto Star would return, and that his first run of 2011/12 would be at Haydock. Nicholls was on record beforehand as saying that he'd got Kauto Star as fit as could be, and that "if Ruby's not feeling it, I've told him to pull up".
It's not as though the 2011 Betfair Chase was a soft target. Long Run, now the pre-eminent force in the division, was sent off favourite ahead of Hennessy winner Diamond Harry, while the first two from the Charlie Hall, Weird Al and Time For Rupert, were also in the mix. Kauto Star entered the paddock to respectful cheers from the crowd, but the same punters allowed him to go off at 6/1, reflecting what they must have felt was his irreversible slide.
Kauto Star set off in the lead, winning a brief tussle with Time For Rupert, and passed the post first time still in front. The old zest was there, the spectacular-yet-elegant jumping was there, but surely it couldn't happen?
Down the back straight, Kauto Star continually out-jumped the hapless Long Run and, although the champion and Diamond Harry were still in the picture, the crowd started to sense something special. On entering the straight a low rumble started, gradually building as people realised just what was unfolding before their eyes. Lasting on the bridle until two out the noise emanating from the crowd erupted as victory seemed assured for Kauto Star, sealed with an incredible leap at the last, and he found even more under pressure to see off Long Run by eight lengths. Scenes as Kauto Star crossed the line were manic, but as he and connections entered the winners' enclosure it simply had to be witnessed to be understood, the crowd united in celebration.
It is almost unheard of for such circumstances to come to pass, losing punters and connections alike usually disconsolate, but this was different; this was Kauto Star and this was a performance that re-defined courage, bravery and, above all, enduring quality.
Kauto Star will ultimately go down in history as one of the best chasers to have ever lived (his highest Timeform rating was 191, the best recorded since the 'sixties), but it was the emotions he inspired and the performances he produced that really mark him down as being a cut above. He was Red Rum-like in the sense that he became the public's horse, his reputation only enhanced by a tendency to make almost catastrophic mistakes at the final fence early in his career. That fallibility only added to his infallibility in the eyes of the people and his grapples with Denman, Imperial Commander and Long Run over the years will, in time, become the stuff of legend.
Try as I might I cannot sum Kauto Star up in mere words; the horse and his efforts on the track deserve far more than I can produce. The best I can offer is to suggest that you watch his final victory in the Betfair Chase, and witness the raw emotion and passion he evoked once more.