Raceline Turfblog: was Kauto Star the greatest chaser of them all?

KAUTO STAR -- (David Jones/PA Wire)
KAUTO STAR -- (David Jones/PA Wire)

FITTINGLY, it was departing Cheltenham guru Edward Gillespie who hit the nail on the head.

“Each time he ran, you could not take your eyes off him,” said Gillespie.

He was, of course, talking about KAUTO STAR, who has been retired after an extraordinary career as one of racing greatest chasers.

Like most of us, Gillespie was mesmerised by the way in which Kauto, at his best, would glide effortlessly through his races.

In the two Cheltenham Gold Cups that he landed, of 2007 and 2009, the imperious gelding could be called the winner with more than a circuit to travel, such was the lovely, languid rhythm he had settled into.

It had been the same on his very first appearance in this country, in a novice chase at Newbury, just after Christmas 2005, when he announced his arrival with an electric performance.

And symmetrically, it was the same again in his final season last year when he made his glorious comeback at Haydock in the Betfair Chase and then pocketed his record-breaking fifth King George VI Chase and 16th Grade One win at Kempton on Boxing Day.

Our admiring eyes will marvel at Kauto no more. But he does return to Haydock this weekend to parade in front of the crowd for the latest renewal of the Betfair Chase before a statue of Clive Smith and Paul Nicholls’s horse is unveiled.

No doubt, the memories of his glittering career will come flooding back. And no doubt, fresh debates will be triggered about whether or not he was the greatest of them all.

It’s notoriously tricky to compare and contrast horses of different generations. But Kauto Star certainly made it harder for those insistent that racing will never witness better than ARKLE.

‘Himself’, winner of 27 of his 35 races, bagged three Gold Cups between 1964 and 1966, plus one King George. But most tellingly, he earned the highest Timeform rating in National Hunt history -- 212, compared to that of 191 for Kauto Star.

That 191 rating, however, is Timeform’s highest since Arkle. And while the winning record of Nicholls’s French-bred might be only 23 from 41 starts, it would have been significantly better without a patchy start to his career in his native country (four victories from ten races). He’s still the only horse in history to have regained the Gold Cup. He’s still the horse to have won more King Georges than any other. He’s still the horse to have trousered more prize money (£2,233,093) than any other. And he is still the horse to have been handed the highest-ever official handicap mark for a chaser -- 193 after be blitzed the opposition by 36 lengths in the 2009 King George, breaking Arkle’s 44-year record margin for the race of 30 lengths.

There are some, mind you, who say Kauto Star was not even the best animal in his own yard. Instead they point to the mighty DENMAN, winner of 14 of his 24 starts, placed in six others and twice a conqueror of Kauto in Cheltenham’s Blue Riband, including by seven lengths in the memorable Gold Cup of 2008.

Denman was also second in the next three Gold Cups of 2009, 2010 and 2011. At his best, he achieved an official rating of 182, off which he finished third in the Hennessy Gold Cup two years ago. And his supporters fuel their case for ‘The Tank’ with evidence of another monumental weight-carrying display to win the 2009 Hennessy off top weight (and a mark of 174).

Kauto Star’s CV is notable for its absence of handicap heroics off big weights -- something which has also always dogged the credentials of BEST MATE, another with claims to the accolade of greatest chaser.

Like Arkle, Henrietta Knight’s chaser landed a Gold Cup treble -- between 2002 and 2004, reaching an official rating of 175. And of 22 races he contested, the only one he didn’t win or finish second in was his ill-fated last when he died of a heart attack at Exeter in November 2005 -- a race in which, ironically, Kauto Star was second.

Weight wasn’t an argument that could be used against Arkle, however. Remember, this was the horse who forced the rules of handicapping to be re-written as he won two Hennessy Gold Cups at Newbury off 12-7 (and was runner-up in a third carrying the same welter burden) and won an Irish National carrying two-and-a-half stones more than the rest!

Nor could it be used against DESERT ORCHID, another legendary chaser riding high in the pantheon of jumping greats. ‘Dessie’ also won an Irish National (in 1990), and throught nothing of swatting away opponents despite conceding them lumps of weight -- most memorably in early 1989 with narrow victories over Panto Prince (receiving 22lb) in the 2m Victor Chandler Chase and then, three weeks later, over Pegwell Bay (receiving 18lb) in the 3m1f Gainsborough Chase.

Such performances helped David Elsworth’s grey attain a best official handicap mark of 187, only 6lb inferior to Kauto Star, as he clocked up 34 victories from a huge number of 70 starts, including four King Georges (1986-1990) and that never-to-be-forgotten Gold Cup of 1989.

The scenes that greeted ‘Dessie’ in the winner’s enclosure at Cheltenham almost surpassed those of three years earlier when DAWN RUN did Ireland proud. And as the only horse ever to complete the Gold Cup/Champion Hurdle double, it’s difficult to knock Charmian Hill and Paddy Mullins’s magnificent mare out of the frame of greats. She won 21 of her 35 races before a tragic, fatal fall in France.

Talking of doubles, what about the only horse to have won the Gold Cup and the Grand National in the same year? You have to go back to 1934 to find GOLDEN MILLER and while there won’t be many alive today who saw him in the flesh, his record speaks for itself. A record-breaking five Gold Cups on the trot, between 1932 and 1936, and 29 victories (plus seven seconds and six thirds) in 52 races.

Golden Miller brings us neatly back to the futility of comparing generations. And also to the futility of pitching one great against another.

Surely it is more rewarding to savour and cherish them all for their array of achievements, which have helped to knit together the rich tapestry of National Hunt racing.

They all have a couple of attributes in common too -- remarkable versatility and determination in the face of adversity.

In terms of versatility, Kauto Star and Desert Orchid were supreme at both 2m and 3m-plus. Within the space of 38 days in 2006, Kauto hopped from wins in the Betfair Chase, to the Tingle Creek to the King George. ‘Dessie’ also recorded a Tingle Creek/King George double in the same month. Denman’s Festival exploits also included a victory in the Sun Alliance Novices’ Chase and second spot in the 2m5f Sun Alliance Novices’ Hurdle. Best Mate would have won both a 2m Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, but for being brought too wide into the home straight, and a 2m Arkle Novices’ Chase, but for foot-and-mouth sabotaging the 2001 Festival.

In terms of fighting adversity, who can forget Kauto Star’s astonishing return to glory at Haydock this time last year, which reduced hardened punters to tears? Who can forget the way both Kauto and Desert Orchid shrugged off horrific falls? Who can forget the way Denman defied a life-threatening heart-scare to take up battle again at Cheltenham and Newbury in the style of a wounded soldier? Who can forget the raw emotion triggered by the Gold Cup triumphs of Dawn Run and Desert Orchid as they summoned extra reserves of courage to hit back after being passed?

Rare qualities. Rare horses. Great horses. At one time or another, for one reason and another, they have all endeared themselves to an adoring public.