Boxing Day. The nation wakes to a barren patch of floor beneath the boughs of the Christmas tree, recycling bags heaving with wrapping paper and bottles, and the potent repercussions of an excess of sprouts.
But jump racing fans greet the day with the anticipation and excitement of young children on Christmas morn. With the Queen’s good wishes for the year ahead still echoing in our ears, Boxing Day is all about the race named in her father’s honour – the King George VI Chase at Kempton. Run over 3 miles, previous winners include such hallowed names as Arkle, Best Mate, One Man, Kicking King, Wayward Lad and the mighty Desert Orchid whose record of four victories seemed unlikely to be equalled and impossible to exceed.
That is until a young french-born contender lined up for the race in 2006. Kauto Star had already grabbed the racing community’s attention with his unique versatility in the run up to the race, winning at two and a half miles in the Old Roan Chase, three in the Betfair Chase then back to two in the Tingle Creek. In doing so, he became the first top-rated horse since Anglo-Irish qualifications began to take the throne at every distance. As monarchs go, he was shaping up very nicely and whispers at court began to include some rarely used adjectives: exceptional, special, remarkable, extraordinary.
His reign in the King George began with an eight-length win in 2006, a convenient stopping off point en route to Prestbury Park to seize the first of two Gold Cups. He delighted his growing band of followers with an eleven-length victory on Boxing Day 2007, followed by another eight-length win a year later. Cheering Kauto Star into the winner’s enclosure at Kempton was fast becoming a perennial fixture on the festive calendar, and a very welcome one. His victory in 2009 in equalling Desert Orchid’s record verged on the surreal. Thirty-six lengths ahead of his toiling pursuers, Kauto Star was in a different postcode such was the expanse of turf as he passed the winning post.
But he didn’t always make it easy for himself which meant victory was never taken for granted, and his fans loved him all the more for it. His triumphs came in spite of some nerve-racking errors which would have stopped a lesser horse. That they didn’t was testament to his class, courage and sheer tenacity. He was all heart. Just as King George VI threw a slight stammer into his famous wartime speech ‘so they’d know it was me’ Kauto would occasionally demolish a fence just to keep us on our toes.
Then came the year which the Queen would no doubt describe as Kauto’s annus horribils. All eyes were on the superstar as the new season began and Boxing Day drew nearer. Could he make history with five successive wins? But snow wreaked havoc and disruption over the Christmas period and the long awaited race had to be postponed until the new year, cranking up the anticipation even further. When it was finally run, it was clear that Kauto Star was not at his imperious best and the dream of surpassing Desert Orchid’s record was over, finishing third to the younger legs of Long Run. The season ended with a third in the Gold Cup, again behind Long Run, before being pulled up in his final outing at Punchestown. The whispers at court took on a sombre tone and the word which began to emerge with reluctant frequency was retirement.
Although Kauto’s loyal supporters refused to believe his supremacy was over, they had to accept it would end one day. Appearing fresh and well after his summer break, he lined up for the Betfair Chase at Haydock with many believing this would be his swansong. Instead, what they witnessed that afternoon was one of racing’s greatest ever comebacks with an eight-length winning margin and a flawless round of jumping. Emotional scenes of adulation followed as the masses surrounded the winner’s enclosure clad in a communal livery of green, yellow and purple, noisily paying homage to a king. Their king.
And so Boxing Day 2011 saw Kauto Star’s noble face surveying Kempton’s familiar landscape once more as he lined up for the King George. The oldest runner in the race and with a wealth of experience at his disposal, he was soon putting in another front-running performance with soaring leaps untroubled by any hint of a stammer. One by one the younger horses failed to mount a challenge, while the building expectation of the crowd was palpable. Ecstatic realisation dawned that the fifth King George on all our Christmas wish-lists had slipped from fantasy’s borders and galloped straight into the realm of reality. History was made, and the record was his.
The gift Kauto Star bestowed on us will never diminish. It was a legacy of brilliance we can only hope to see again in our lifetime. We may look to the novice ranks and yearn to find a horse with the potential to quicken the pulse and warm the heart as he did, but while his record stands the star shines eternal.
Long live The King.
Video – You Tube: Channel 4 Racing