Nicholas Godfrey on the relative merits of Arkle and Kauto Star
The five-time King George hero raced in a more demanding era than 'Himself'
First published on Wednesday, December 28, 2011
Here's the thing.
Kauto Star is my favourite horse. He's also by some measure the best chaser of my lifetime and I'm 44.
That makes him much better than Burrough Hill Lad and Silver Buck, better than Desert Orchid and Best Mate. Even the Denman fan club has finally had to concede that his rival is something pretty special.
Yet while this season's incredible exploits have added a fairytale burnish, there was already ample evidence as to how good Kauto Star is.
Remember that truly epic King George display a couple of years ago, unquestionably the most astonishing performance of a great career as he beat a field of top-class chasers absolutely pointless? Kauto Star's record over six years since he won the Tingle Creek in 2005 bears comparison with any chaser there's ever been. Five King Georges, a couple of Cheltenham Gold Cups and plenty more big prizes bear witness to his talents.
It has taken years but everyone readily agrees Kauto Star is the best we've seen for some time. The question: is he the best we've ever seen? Perhaps. But not too many people are likely to stick their neck out and say so because there's a glass ceiling and it is called Arkle. Or, more precisely, Arkle and his Timeform rating.
Kauto Star achieved his highest rating with his 36-length drubbing of Madison Du Berlais in December 2009, after which handicappers of every hue catapulted Kauto Star's rating into the 190s, well ahead of the modern-era benchmark Desert Orchid, whose Kempton tally he has now bettered.
Racing Post Ratings awarded Kauto Star a rating of 191 – the highest ever achieved – while the official handicapper Phil Smith pushed him up to 195 on his scale. Nothing, including King Kauto himself, has beaten it since.
Timeform, though, have been at this game longer than anyone else and they are the only rankings available from back in Arkle's mid-1960s heyday. Arkle owns the highest Timeform jumps rating of all time, a scarcely believable 212.
Flyingbolt, his two-mile specialist stablemate from the same era, comes in second on 210, with Mill House – the horse whose heart was broken by Arkle – alongside Kauto Star at a respectful distance on the 191 mark.
Attempting to argue with two of racing's untouchables, Arkle and Timeform, is not far off heresy in some circles – and perhaps here it should be admitted that I am no real fan of handicap ratings as a means of determining merit between top horses of even the same generation, although I retain the utmost respect for those disciplined, excellent professionals who face the unequal task of trying to work out the figures.
While handicappers will always defend their ratings as far as they can, most of them would admit they still represent merely the best guess. As Ruby Walsh put it after one of Kauto Star's King George victories: "Ratings are only people's opinions." Considered expert opinions but opinions nevertheless.
Handicappers love two things above all else – weight and winning distance. Peter Savill was among those to appreciate this, which is why he instructed Kevin Darley to ride out Celtic Swing in the Racing Post Trophy as if his Timeform rating depended on it. Which it did – Celtic Swing's rating remains at the top end of the two-year-old lists, well above others who win in more cosy fashion.
Kauto Star has never been asked to concede loads of weight to inferior animals – unlike Arkle, who did so habitually.
Racing, though, like so many other sports, has changed utterly in the near 50 years since Arkle was routinely routing his rivals. Generally he faced only small fields, even in those handicaps in which he was giving away weight all round, and even the celebrated Gold Cup where he made his name slamming Mill House was a four-runner event.
Quality not quantity, I hear you cry. But might it be reasonable to suggest that major handicaps, always run at a faster clip these days, are a tad harder to win now? Please, before you jump down my throat, this is not to denigrate Arkle's achievements, merely to suggest that Kauto Star has been unfairly downgraded by comparison.
Most other sports have improved out of all recognition since Arkle's day, so why should jump racing be any different? Quite the reverse – haven't we spent most of the last two decades extolling the virtues of new levels of professionalism post-Martin Pipe? Maybe Arkle's rating is best understood as a reflection of his superiority over his contemporaries, but common sense can only be affronted by the idea that he and Flyingbolt were so far ahead of every other steeplechaser in history.
While stablemates have been known to bring each other on – think Kauto Star, Denman and Master Minded – can the Tom Dreaper-trained pair really have been so much better than their modern-day counterparts? It's not the same over hurdles, where Istabraq managed to overhaul 'golden agers' like Night Nurse and Monksfield; it's not the same on the Flat, where Frankel and Sea The Stars figure highly among the Sea-Birds and Brigadier Gerards of this world.
So why should chasing be any different? While I will always bat for Kauto Star, I am quite prepared to accept that others have a strong argument why Arkle was indeed the best of all time and maybe even that Flyingbolt could have been the second-best.
But an implausible 21lb differential between any horse's best – even the nonpareil Arkle – and the best ever achieved by the greatest jumps performer I have ever seen?
Sorry, I'm just not buying it.
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