On the night of the Cheltenham Gold Cup 2008, I had wangled my way into the famous Weighing Room party at the Cheltenham Festival, which the jockeys throw to celebrate the end of the National Hunt Festival. In various states of undress, the jockeys were singing and celebrating, and Sam Thomas – jockey of Gold Cup winner Denman – was centre stage.
Smiling bravely in the mid-distance was Ruby Walsh, who had finished runner-up on Kauto Star. “Denman broke his heart today,” I said to a pal, pointing at Ruby. “Horses don’t come back from defeats like that. He was ace last year but he’s gone”.
My goodness, did he come back! Kauto’s win the following year in the Blue Riband of the Turf was epic, as were his scarcely believable five King Georges at Kempton on Boxing Day. We were taught to follow a star at Christmas and Kauto was that star. Spell-binding too was his Haydock Park win in 2011, and so was his retirement in the 2012 Gold Cup, when he was pulled up and returned to the winner’s enclosure as if he’d just liberated Europe.
So what was it that made Kauto Star so special? One word: fragility. Whether it is Sir Henry Cecil, Desert Orchid or Kauto Star – those we hold most dear through the ages are the great champions shot through with fragility.
Kauto Star was brilliant but beatable, he was breathtaking but vulnerable. He had off-days and he had days from the Gods. He was what we all wanted to be and what we all knew deep down we are incapable of. He died yesterday and those of us who lived through his era were privileged to have been there to follow the star.
Inevitably when a great horse retires, or sadly dies, comparisons are made. Who is the greatest of them all? Expert firms like Timeform and ratings gurus will give us their dispassionate views, but therein lies the rub. There is nothing dispassionate about greatness. Brilliance is imbued with passion and emotion; our greatest memories are laced with irrational and exuberant, so-called analysis. As time passes, we often aadd more glory than was there on the day.
In racing, many of us also talk through our pockets. If we’ve backed a winner, that winner is always thought of more highly than others! For many of a certain vintage, Arkle will have no equal, ever. He re-wrote scales and tore up record-books and his feats can never be repeated in modern-day racing. And perhaps that is true. But it means little to the young couple who are starting out on their recreational journey of falling in love with racing.
They need heroes today who aren’t always held up to scrutiny against the light shone by those of a bygone era. In time, they will patronise their grandchildren with talk of their own golden era. All that matters is that they and their grandchildren after them find their own stars, their own heroes and learn to fall in love with the present rather than the past.
Spare a thought this week for the Sandown executive. Their flagship event of the Summer – the Group 1 Coral-Eclipse – has been shunted into the footnotes of news because of Kauto Star’s death and the latest raft of corruption allegations dripping out of the BHA. The Derby winner – Golden Horn – will be the chief draw and is priced up to turn the great race into a lap of honour. He faces just four rivals and given the prize-money on offer, this is little short of a nonsense.
We follow racing because horses race – because we enjoy a procession. We love the sport because of the thrills and the spills, the unlikely and the vintage. Some will argue that small fields allow closer examination of individual horses but that’s what the gallops are for. We want Golden Horn to prove himself to be getting better and convince us that he is one for all the ages. It is no fault of his but even if he did a demolition job on Saturday, it’s unlikely to tell us anything that we didn’t already know against a small-group of older horses.
We are in grave danger of slipping onto the cold list as we’ve not found a winner for the best part of a month, but hope springs eternal and we’ll look to Haydock for our weekend winner.
Luca Cumani and Lancashire are seldom associated closely, but I think he heads there with two terrific chances in the shape of Jordan Princess, who can improve for her reappearance at Goodwood in the Lancashire Oaks; and in Penhill, Cumani can nick the Old Newton Cup, too, with a horse who, providing the rain comes, can uphold the impression he made at Ascot earlier this term.
Moral of the story? When you’ve missed the target with one weekly bullet, fire two!