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Kauto Star off to do dressage

Kauto Star has featured on the *header photo of this blog for a long while now, along with his regular rider Ruby Walsh. It therefore seems right to note that today was the day he left his longtime home of Ditcheat, with trainer Paul Nicholls and the man who has ‘done’ the Star for all these years, Clifford Baker.

The Twittersphere is all aflutter with the news: the manner in which the departure came about, the new career for the amazing horse we have loved for so long. It seems that the owner, Clive Smith and the trainer had some sort of difference of opinion and the planned departure to pastures new was brought forward to today. Apparently Clifford Baker’s daughter didn’t even get to say goodbye to King Kauto.

I suppose it’s a mini PR disaster for racing. Kauto Star has been the jewel in the crown of winter National Hunt racing for years. That the owner and the trainer should ‘fall out’ over the rest of his career is a shame. That career is nominally in dressage. They aren’t mucking around either, Kauto is going to be ridden by an Olympic hopeful rider and retrained by the great Yogi Breisner. Clive Smith says Kauto is ‘too good’ to be a hack, but what an earth does that mean? I would have been more on his wavelength if he said, ‘look the horse is only twelve and he needs to be kept busy – he’s that kind of horse.’ To me, it looks like an old guy giving a pretty young lady a lovely present, but I am old and unkind perhaps. Back on a more empirical footing, good dressage horses tend to be warmbloods, not thoroughbreds, the latter being too hot-blooded for the manege. I admit I am kind of hoping Kauto Star puts them all in their place, politely, over the next few months.

Running and jumping is the the boy for me he might say, if he could talk… Now, where’s my old neighbour Denman?

Denman out with some mates and new rider Charlotte Alexander from Horse & Hound

Click here for more of Denman’s Diary and a life after racing.

And here to see Kauto Star in his new home as of today. Good luck lad.

*I’ve been wondering if it’s time to change this for a while now, but I don’t think I’m ready yet.

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In praise of jockeys

I can’t let the Festival week end without noting the general workaday heroism of our jockeys, both jumps and flat. They often come in for a lot of stick (excuse the pun) and if you don’t ride you can have no idea of the physical demands made on their bodies every day, and that’s not including kicks and falls and wasting to make weight.

For my money, these guys are the toughest athletes we have. Early starts, long journeys, seven day weeks on little food – no wonder Andrew Tinkler tweeted this morning that if he’d been lucky enough to win the one million that one of Nicky Henderson’s stable staff did this week on a yard five-timer, Tinkler would be straight off to Heathrow – not riding work the next morning as indeed the lottery winner was (full story here).

Anyway, props to Ruby Walsh and Tony McCoy for yesterday; not just for having the wisdom to preserve the beloved Kauto Star after nine fences jumped, nor indeed the looks like you won’t even be placed ride on Synchronised to lift the Gold Cup. No, massive, massive respect for this brief exchange, redolent with meaning, between the two friends and competitors during the running of the Gold Cup, reported in the Racing Post.

Ruby said: “I was thinking about pulling up when
AP [McCoy] said ‘if I were you I’d be pulling up’.

The rest is history.

From the Mirror: AP with Synchronised ~ what a lovely Sadler's Wells face

On another cockles-of-my-heart note, Paul Nicholls is parading Kauto Star, Big Buck’s and Rock on Ruby through Ditcheat this lunchtime, in that order. Kauto Star in front, where he belongs.

The Greatest Show on Turf: Gold Cup Day (start spreading the news)

There’s something about Gold Cup Day. For me, Champion Hurdle Day used to be the most nerve-wracking day of the Festival because it was Day One and I was always in love: Rooster Booster, Detroit City, Harchibald, Brave Inca and Hardy Eustace. It was the race I had invested in most heavily emotionally, and sometimes financially, because it felt more like a bit of me. It spoke to my passion for flat racing and as a lot of the contenders had flat racing pedigrees I had another angle in on the form. By Gold Cup day, I was too knackered to do anything more than enjoy the last championship race.

Then a few years ago in a conversation with a fellow punter, sitting in those elevated seats overlooking the course at another Cheltenham meeting, I mentioned that, to me, the Champion Hurdle had started to feel more like a sacrifical altar than a race. As I said it, I was looking out towards Cleeve Hill and imagining all those Champion Hurdlers coming round the top bend. It was one of those things you say, but weren’t expecting to. Since then, Tuesday at the Festival has seemed a little less vitally important.

Gold Cup Day, now on a Friday, stands alone. It never has seemed like a sacrificial altar to me and I don’t want it to start now! After all, if you’ve (the horse) have made it there with a serious chance its just like that line in the Sinatra song New York, New York about making it anywere…King of the Hill, Head of the Heap, Top of the List, King of the Hill la, la, la…

Sorry. No doubt about it, the Gold Cup is a culmination. It is the culmination of the working week, it is the culmination of our National Hunt season, it is the culmination of the Festival and it is the culmination of a jumps horse’s career.

To culminate means to bring to a point of greatest intensity or completion, from the Latin root culminare meaning to crown, or culmen meaning the summit. And there is more. It also has a meaning relating to astronomy. To culminate in astronomical terms means that a star, or other celestial body, reaches the highest point above an observer’s horizon.

Gold Cup Day has its own Star today and I, along with most of the racing fraternity, are hoping beyond hope to see the culmination of Kauto Star’s most magnificent career. If he wins, I will surely be enjoying my own culmination: following the Star into my own celestial meridian.

Conveniently down the road from my house

P.S. If Kauto Star doesn’t win, please let him come back safe with all the rest, and I know we will love him just as much, if not more, as before. And I will still play the Frank Sinatra tune tonight and toast the greatest jump horse I have ever seen.

Heart in mouth time

It’s a funny saying that, attributed to Homer’s ‘Iliad’; a feeling Queen Hecuba gets immediately before hearing the news of her son, Hector’s, death. The full line being:

‘In my chest, my heart leapt in my mouth, my lower limbs are numb.’

I just read the news from Paul Nicholl’s yard that Kauto Star will run in the Gold Cup this Friday afternoon, and the saying came immediately to mind. My heart is in my mouth, and it’s going to stay there until the race is run on Friday. It’s difficult to organise your thoughts when you feel like that, so here’s some more from The Iliad, Book 22.

Just as some horses,
sure-footed, prize-winning creatures, make the turn
around the post and race quickly as they strive to win
some splendid prize—a tripod or a woman
honouring a man that’s died—that’s how these two men raced,
going three times round Priam’s city on their sprinting feet.

And here is a picture of Kauto Star and Long Run. It’s interesting to note how the old warrior looks quite perky and the new kid on the block looks a bit, well, knackered.

Please let them all come back safe, in this order...

The week ahead: Kauto Star

I’ve lost and gained in my time on racecourses. Money obviously, but other stuff too, stuff which is mainly unquantifiable. I’ve not been racing for nearly a year and because of other demands on my time I haven’t kept up with ever-changing minutiae of the sport. By which I mean I rarely look at the form and although I check the Racing Post site most days, I rarely click beyond the main headlines.

I still love horses and racing, but without the time for the study I no longer gamble. Mindlessly backing horses I know nothing about just doesn’t appeal. This Friday is the Cheltenham Gold Cup and Kauto Star, the horse featured on the blog’s header, is likely to run against last year’s Young Pretender who in fact lifted the prize, Long Run. Kauto took a nasty fall at home recently and his participation, let alone his winning, have looked uncertain. Noises from the yard are now positive and the racing world is crossing its collective fingers, not just for the horse to run, but to run and jump safely home.

I don’t have to look at a single piece of form to know about this race. To feel the race in prospect quickening my heart and, equally, if I let it, tattering my nerves. Kauto Star is 12. He has won the King George at Kempton a record 5 times. He is going for his 3rd Gold Cup win, if he runs; the stable will confirm or otherwise tomorrow, but the sounds coming out of there are all positive. Kauto Star is the kind of rare athlete and superstar that superlatives, often frittered away in racing journalism, were made for.

The last horse to win 3 Gold Cups was the flawless Best Mate. Others who achieved the same feat, Arkle and Cottage Rake, were outside my lifetime. Then there was Golden Miller who won a straight 5 Gold Cups on the bounce between 1932 and 1936 – click here for videos of these and other Cheltenham legends. At 12 Kauto Star is never going to achieve that number, but with his King George victories a 3rd Gold Cup would put him right up there with Golden Miller, to my mind.

I am not one for debating who was the best National Hunt horse across the centuries, but I know special, special, special when I see it and, whatever happens this week, Kauto Star is staying as this blog’s header shot for a very long time to come.

Kauto Star at home with Clifford Baker, his lad who has the final say on whether he runs

Kauto Star takes ‘a tumble’

I am sad to read the news that Kauto Star has had what was in fact a rather nasty training fall at home last week. The horse is reportedly not himself and the yard says he is 50/50 to make it to the Gold Cup at Cheltenham later this month.

I would not want to be in trainer Paul Nicholls shoes over the next few weeks.

It feels like the end of an era ~ you can’t have a Gold Cup without Denman and now Kauto Star, can you?

Not really…

The power of a horse race

What follows is an attempt to explain to those of you who couldn’t give a seasonal fig for horse racing one of the reasons that those of us that do love it, do.

It’s because of the story: the true story. In fact, a horse race is so true I want to attempt to separate it almost entirely from the world of story. It’s not easy and here is why. They say there are only seven types of story out there, literature being based on one, or another of them. And what we are inclined to do is (sometimes interchangeably) impose one of these seven narratives onto our own muddled existences. We do this backwards, to understand the past, and we do it forwards, to better enjoy, or ‘plan’ the future. However, the fact of the matter is that we only know the now, this present moment, and in this moment there is no particular story to be grabbed on to, unless we want to take down a reel from the shelf of life and roll it both backwards and forwards to make the present, the now, cohese with the past and the future that exists only in our minds.

And as complicated as that sounds, that is pretty much what we do. For example, many of us will have played the showreel labelled ‘Christmas’ on a loop for the last few days. We tend to think in narratives and we have accompanying reels for just about every mundane, and otherwise, scenario. And we do it so very well that the storytelling about ourselves, our lives and others becomes an automatic way of being and before we know it those stories are not just super-imposed onto the current context of our lives, they become our lives. Our minds become a dark space waiting for a reel to flicker into life. The flickering stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, and others, start to run our thinking. Our thoughts fit the narrative from the shelf…

I am not against stories, but I am cautious of the way we let might let sloppy ones run riot in our own heads, unexamined and rarely called to account. The power of a narrative tool, used judiciously is a beautiful thing, but the reality is that we are awash with cheap, emotive and polemic narratives that do us all a disservice. Our unquestioning acceptance of our own and consequently other people’s stories about our lives, their lives: Life… leads us into an unthinking loop and when we tire of those narratives, we reach for the alternative but equally manufactured ones via tv remote, or a book, or the computer.

It is in this state of narrative-induced inertia that we en masse sponge up the stories of advertisers who infer to us that we’ll be more cool if we buy an iWhatever, or we’ll capture love if we buy and wear a certain perfume. We take those stories, and we say, ‘Aha! That’s a rubbish story that is. Of course I am not going to meet a film star if I buy a coffee machine. What do they think I am, stupid?’ And we forget about it… But do we? Actually we don’t. Of course we forget much of the detail, perhaps even the actual name of the perfume or coffee machine. But our memory has a remarkable tenacity and clings onto the basic narrative like a piece of driftwood. Our brains remember the gist of it, minus some detail and part of the reason we do this is because it makes the complication of life more simple. It makes the downright dog’s dinner of human existence cohese into a more palatable selection of amuse-bouches. It also makes us buy products whose advertising narratives best fit our own…

It’s not at all our fault and it partially explains why memory is so unreliable. See that showreel labelled Christmas? Well it’s not a re-run every time you play it on the Dave channel of your mind. It’s more a story board for the future made up of the basic gist of the past, missing quite a lot of forensic detail. We tend to retrieve only an abstract impression of the past, especially the commonplace, and even that shifts with every separate retrieval.

So why hang onto the horse race, which could itself be described in narrative form? Because amongst the smoke and mirrors of so many individually nuanced stories about life, crossing the line in front is a one true fact. A fact of the matter. It stands outside my context, and yours. It is what it is. And in the seconds of victory, that can be replayed at will in detail, unlike our own plentiful faulty memories, it ties us to a present moment like the very few other facts of existence that are uniquely glorious in their own immediate context: like the birth of a baby, or a gin and tonic.

Horse racing is a factual account that sits in its own context and demonstrates the power of now. Of course when Kauto Star won his fifth King George, in his sixth run in the same race, we ran the story backwards in our minds to enjoy the possible forwards of it all that much more if he won. But nothing was certain; he might have lost. For me, the power of a great horse race like yesterday’s story…

Kauto Star’s Fifth King George the Sixth

…lies in this one thing, the thing you can be fairly sure of amongst all the hyperbole, in all our story-ridden intepretations of life – the horse wasn’t counting. We can choose to overlay the day with a fantastic and triumphant narrative, if we like, but the main protaganist, the horse, will not.

We can learn a lot from that.

Yeats & Murtagh: one of them has a story, one of them does not

On wishes and horses

This blog was named for horses like this fellow.

Happy Boxing Day indeed.

Boxing Day Wishes

Fifteen people had already found their way to the blog today by typing in ‘Boxing Day wishes’, so I decided to make my own wish.

I dreamt about the King George last night, I was looking for Kauto Star’s colours coming up to the line at Kempton. It looked like a photofinish…

Kauto Star and the King George

I wonder what Dessie would think

The Star in the firmament of chasers of recent years is going for a fifth win
in the King George VI Chase this afternoon. He is level with the great Desert
Orchid on four wins so it would be a tear-jerking moment if he manages it at
3 o’clock today with McCoy in the plate.

Of course, on all known form, it should be a stroll in the park for Kauto; it’s hard
to make a serious case for anything to beat him. I’ll be hoping he does it, but I
might throw some each way money at the gallant grey Nacarat, and the course
specialist and potentially improving Riverside Theatre from the Henderson yard,
because it’s a horse race and you just never know.

I wouldn’t be in the business of contradicting the astrologer Russell Grant’s
prediction on 5 Live this morning with my each way bets though. Apparently,
he cast the horoscopes for both McCoy and Kauto Star today, based on their
birth dates, and declared “all the portents right”…

When that’s all over with I’ll also be looking out for Russe Blanc in the bumper
at Warwick. The horse is notable for being listed as a white gelding; you don’t
see many of those on a racecard. I saw Desert Orchid in the other year and he
would have definitely fitted that description. Despite drawing his pension and
being a little bit woolly, he still could, and did, turn on his star quality for his fans.

Good luck Kauto Star