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Kauto Star: the rock 'n' roll chaser who kept bouncing back to remind the doubters who was king

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James BurnLambourn correspondent

To mark National Racehorse Week, this week we're profiling your five finalists in the race to be crowned The People's ChampionIn the fourth instalment, James Burn – with the help of Racing Post readers – considers what made Kauto Star so special. You can now vote for your champion here.

Two little words do not dare to tell the whole story of Kauto Star, but, in their own strange way, offer a glimpse into the finest steeplechaser to have graced the sport since the immortal Arkle.

In-running race comments tend to be fairly dry but, in the wake of Kauto Star's fourth and fifth victories in the King George VI Chase at Kempton, Jonathan Neesom – an analyst more immune to hyperbole than most in the sport – was moved to use the words "magnificent" and "awesome" to describe Paul Nicholls' legend.

There are, of course, plenty of other adjectives we can use to describe Kauto Star, as the scores of readers who nominated him as their People's Champion did. "Honest, enigmatic, imperious," wrote Adele McCann. "Dynamic," offered Annette Lennon. "Brave," was a common tribute used by many, among them Rebecca Holloway. Reginald George Botham kept it simple: "He was just brilliant."

If there are lots of superlatives for Kauto Star, there were almost as many different ways of pronouncing his name. 'Kortoe', 'Kaytoe' and 'Coatoe' are probably the most used terms, but not one of us had any problem with the 'Star' because the French-bred gelding quickly lived up to his name in that respect.

There had been clues in the purchase price as Clive Smith forked out around €400,000 for him in 2004, which looked money well spent when he walloped his rivals on his British debut at Newbury in December that year. But the first glimpse Kauto Star might be truly out of the ordinary came on his next appearance at Exeter where he fell two out, was remounted by Ruby Walsh, hit the last, yet – despite having incurred an injury that would keep him out for the rest of that novice season – somehow ran on to finish a short-head second.

Clive Smith, Mick Fitzgerald and Paul Nicholls lap up Kauto's 2005 Tingle Creek win
Clive Smith, Mick Fitzgerald and Paul Nicholls after Kauto Star's victory in the 2005 Tingle CreekCredit: Edward Whitaker

That race would provide a sign of things to come. An exceptional athlete, Kauto Star was not without flaws. He boasts a phenomenal record decorated with 16 Grade 1s, including two Gold Cups and those five King Georges, but there were high-profile hiccups – and a tendency to live dangerously by clouting a fence, often the last one – on the way. However, those episodes just added to the engrossing appeal of a must-watch performer who thrilled most of the time, could fail to shine on other occasions, but always bounced back and remind the doubters who was king.

Examples of that include his fall, as the 2-1 favourite, in the 2006 Champion Chase, to which he responded by winning his next six races, including his first in both the King George and Gold Cup, while he barely came off the bridle when dropped to two miles in the Tingle Creek.

Much of the next season was about his rivalry with Ditcheat stablemate Denman and their highly anticipated heavyweight clash at Cheltenham in the Gold Cup, for which Kauto Star went off 10-11 favourite but never looked happy under Walsh. He was the glider to Denman the grinder – think Federer v Nadal – and that was an afternoon for grinding, but it was also the time many more fell for him, struck by the courage he showed when, evidently not on a going day, he ran on gamely to narrow the gap to seven lengths at the finish. "He had the heart of a lion when he went down to Denman and never gave up," wrote Charlotte Shore.

Kauto Star's fan club was enormous by this time, his followers attracted by the fact he had frailties twinned with his majestic brilliance and, now, the heart of a warrior. He recaptured the Gold Cup 12 months later, turning the tables on Denman to win in stunning style, despite many feeling he didn't excel at Cheltenham and preferred going right-handed at the flatter, sharper Kempton. Either way, a haul of seven successes in Britain's two championship staying chases is unequalled by any other horse, while his four Betfair Chases are also unmatched.

As good as it gets: Kauto Star (right) goes head to head with Denman in the 2009 Cheltenham Gold Cup
Kauto Star (right) goes head to head with Denman in the 2009 Gold CupCredit: Mark Cranham

The last of those cemented Kauto Star's legacy and will live forever in the memory. By then, the 11-year-old had won just one of his last five starts and had been pulled up in the Punchestown Gold Cup on his previous appearance. Nicholls speaks openly about the pressure he faced in that Betfair Chase when even some of Kauto's partisan support might have wanted him retired and the trainer on the stand, but the 14-time champion has never ducked a challenge in his 61 years and primed the veteran to perfection to beat the previous season's Gold Cup hero Long Run.

Kauto Star electrified Haydock that day, perhaps realising the sheer weight of desire that was heaped on his bay back for him to deliver, and if that weren't enough, one final hurrah came with that fifth, final and thrilling King George before the curtain came down on the most memorable of careers in the 2012 Gold Cup.

Nicholls freely says he was the horse of a lifetime and that extends to many more whose engagement with such an outstanding and charismatic competitor led to what felt like a culture change in jump racing in Britain, laying the path for Sprinter Sacre and other big-name equine celebrities to follow, and new, younger fans to embrace them.

Kauto Star after his last victory in the 2011 King George
Kings of Kempton: Kauto Star and Ruby Walsh following the 2011 King George VI ChaseCredit: Mark Cranham

If three-time Gold Cup winner Best Mate was for the purists, Kauto Star was for the people; he appeared to make jump racing sexy for the first time in its history. That's not to say more popular, but – perhaps helped by the emergence of social media – he seemed the first rock 'n' roll chaser whose bold campaigning will, like his hit list of chart-topping displays, never be replicated.

Magnificent, awesome, and any other superlatives you can think of. What a star.

Never had I felt so compelled by a horse

I was 12 when I saw a 'horses to follow' piece on Channel 4 Racing when they showed the race in which Ruby hopped back on after Kauto had fallen, only to finish a desperate second. Never had I felt so compelled by a horse, and this moment inspired a fanaticism for this fantastic animal who had longevity, consistency and sheer brilliance.

Kauto Star jumps the last under Ruby Walsh to win his second Tingle Creek Chase in 2006
Kauto Star jumps the last under Ruby Walsh to win his second Tingle Creek Chase in 2006Credit: Edward Whitaker

His second Tingle Creek still stands out as one of the easiest and most breathtaking wins I've ever witnessed. Any performance at Kempton was sublime. I even cut short a date in 2010 to watch his failed Gold Cup, much to the disappointment of my prospective admirer. That's how important he was.

There were always ups and downs with Kauto, but there was never any better to me. Denman? Well, Cheltenham simply isn't Kauto's track. Imperial Commander? Well, he just got lucky! Long Run? He's a five-year-old, what do you expect?!

But I never lost the faith, and Kauto always rewarded the faithful, particularly in 2011 when he streaked to victory in the Betfair Chase and King George. Heroic, herculean efforts I doubt we'll ever witness again.
Kellsey McCann, Racing Post reader

Kauto Star: the facts and figures

Foaled 2000 in France, bay gelding by Village Star - Kauto Relka (Port Etienne)

Owner Clive Smith

Trainer Paul Nicholls, Ditcheat, Somerset

Jockeys Ruby Walsh, Sam Thomas, Mick Fitzgerald

Record over fences 19 wins from 31 starts (2004-12)

Grade 1 wins 16 (world record over fences)

Cheltenham Gold Cup 2007, 2009

King George VI Chase 5 times (record): 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 (by record 36 lengths), 2011

Other Grade 1 wins Betfair Chase 4 times (record), Tingle Creek Chase twice, Down Royal Champion Chase twice, Ascot Chase

Champion steeplechaser (RPRs) 4 times: 2006-07, 2008-09, 2009-10, 2011-12

Best Racing Post Rating 191 (highest ever awarded) in 2009 King George VI Chase
Compiled by John Randall

Read more: 

Frankel: greatness not in question - but doing it for Sir Henry made it so much more poignant 

Desert Orchid: so much more than just an astonishing racehorse - he became part of the family too 

Denman: they called him The Tank for good reason - and he pushed the boundaries of what we thought possible

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Published on 13 September 2023Last updated 16:06, 14 September 2023