Sunday, November 20, 2011

Star in name and deed

I'm pretty pathetic when it comes to horses, well all animals really. But with racehorses, the fact that when they are at exercise and on the track, they are doing as we have asked them to somehow makes them that extra bit special, and they can reduce me to tears in a heartbeat.

I can't even see Red Rum's sheepskin noseband bobbing round Aintree in re-runs of his Grand National feats without sobbing and there have been plenty of other horses over the years – some obvious such as Dessie and Persian Punch, some less so, like See More Business, Benedict and my own Panto – who will gallop on in my mind forever.

More often than not it's the jumpers that get to me. I came into racing through jump racing and though I would probably say I have a preference for the Flat now, somehow it's the National Hunt horses who live with you the longest. Of course that is helped by the fact that generally they are racing for much longer and we come to know them like old friends. Very occasionally they let you down but the good jumpers can't get to where they are without trying to do their very best, and even if they don't always get it right, they are every bit as admirable in defeat as they are in victory.

Possibly the most exciting place I've ever been in my life is the winner's enclosure at Cheltenham after last year's Gold Cup. It was thrilling to witness the crowning of a new king in the admirable Long Run, but best of all was the reception given to the two former Gold Cup heroes, Denman and Kauto Star, long-term rivals and stable-mates, who chased the young whippersnapper almost half their age all the way up the hill with the gusto that has been the hallmark of each of their superb careers.

In after days, it will be impossible to mention Kauto Star without Denman. So very different in physique and style but both so beloved by the passionate hordes of jumping fans. To choose a favourite would, quite simply, be wrong. I love them both to the point that I'm almost terrified to watch them run now. It's an exquisite fear.

I won't deny that last year part of me thought perhaps it's time for them to bow out, when their old legs aren't quite getting them home, and younger foes are so merciless in attack. How wrong I was.

On Saturday, Kauto Star summoned up the blood to deliver a performance that it was almost impossible to believe he was still capable of. Attacking from the front with all the verve of old, he made Long Run dig deep and found him to be wanting. The cheers from the crowd, more raucous than those that sent him out on his mission, told us all we need to know about the place this horse occupies in the hearts of his many followers.

By the time Long Run was born, in April 2005, Kauto Star has already raced 12 times for five wins and five places. His tally now stands at 39-22-7-4...and counting. The six-year-old may have wrested the 11-year-old's steeplechasing crown from him last season but it would appear that it was only ever on loan.

The picture at the top of this post is reproduced by kind permission of the excellent George Selwyn.

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