‘Why should those of 60-plus use valet parking?’ inquired one of my Christmas cracker mottos. ‘Because valets don’t forget where they park your car.’ Life does catch up on you, as I recently discovered when my son beat me 3–0 at table tennis despite the secret training session I had sneakily put in before we knocked up. (In the Oakley household table tennis is not a gentle ping pong: it more closely resembles war to the death.) What really stung was his gracious reference afterwards to how the results used to be the other way round, even if only by a point a game, and to the inevitability of the ageing process.
Had poor Kauto Star understood human speech he would have felt much the same after coming home third in the King George at Kempton Park last Saturday, 19 lengths behind Long Run, the new kid on the block. ‘Ah, well, there’s an end to every good thing,’ some of the 15,000 spectators around me were saying. ‘What can you expect from an 11-year-old?’ said others, or ‘I’m glad I saw him in his prime.’
Most of the 15,000, like me, had turned up hoping to see a horse who had already equalled Desert Orchid’s record of four victories in the King George score a fifth consecutive win. But Kauto Star was never travelling with his usual ease and from a long way out Tony McCoy was working hard to keep him in the race. He might well have finished second but for a tired horse’s blunder at the second-last but was never going to beat Long Run, whose amateur rider Sam Waley-Cohen had got the six-year-old into a wonderful rhythm and whose mind was kept fully on the job with the assistance of a set of smart blue earplugs.
In steeplechasing terms, Long Run, though coming from France with a formidable reputation, is still a baby and yet he appeared to enjoy every minute of the race. Wisely, his trainer had told Sam Waley-Cohen, ‘It doesn’t matter where you are as long as you keep him relaxed’ — and he could not have done that better.
After the race Kauto Star’s trainer Paul Nicholls was his usual honest, measured self, insisting that he could not have been happier with his horse’s preparation and that Kauto Star had simply been beaten by a better horse on the day. He added, ‘There’s nothing different I can do. He’s got older and maybe he’s a little slower.’
For me it is much, much too early to start writing Kauto Star’s racing obituary, especially as far as the Cheltenham Gold Cup is concerned. Yes, because horses ages change on 1 January, he is a year older at 11. But we are still only one year on from the King George in which he scored one of the most comprehensive victories of all time, coming home more than 30 lengths clear of a quality field.
Look, too, at the current fortunes of the Henderson and Nicholls yards. Both are Rolls-Royce establishments presided over by masters of the art of preparing horses for big races. But even the best of yards have good days and better days, good months and better months. Sometimes, however well a trainer is doing things, there can be something in the feed, the water, the general ambience of the yard that takes a 5 per cent edge off the horses’ performances. Paul Nicholls is as thoughtful and as thorough as ever but statisticians note that the wins-to-races ratio of his horses is currently well behind what it was when Kauto was winning his four consecutive King Georges.
Nicky Henderson, meanwhile, is going through a patch which encompasses every shade of purple. On the nine-race card at Kempton, the Lambourn supremo, who has a particular affinity with the Thames-side course, won no fewer than five races. It would have been six had not A Media Luz capsized at the second last just after taking the lead in the William Hill juvenile hurdle. On current form, Nicky could win with the stable cat ridden by a 7lb-claimer.
Yes, Kauto Star was as good as Paul Nicholls could get him on the day. But, given the way others from the yard are performing, was that attainable ‘good’ quite as good as he has been in past King Georges? Yes, Long Run is a formidable prospect who has started what may be a run of victories in the King George a year sooner than Kauto Star did. But the King George isn’t the only big race in the calendar and, as Paul Nicholls reflected soon after Kauto’s defeat, it may well be that if he is a yard or two slower than he was he could now be better suited by a more demanding track. Long Run, for all his promise, has twice disappointed at Cheltenham. The 12–1 available after the King George over Kauto Star’s chances of winning back the Gold Cup may yet prove to be the most generous each-way offer of the season.