Paul Nicholls believes Kauto Star is still in the ascendant as he heads to Kempton’s Boxing Day showcase

December 23rd, 201111:51 pm @


“I fired into Mike,” Nicholls recalls, smiling. “I said, ‘He pays your wages
in many ways. And Mike, you don’t know. Just accord me the respect of
knowing when to retire him’. It’s not greed. It annoys me when people tell
you how to do your job.

“The money’s irrelevant. That race at Haydock [the Betfair Chase] could have
been worth 10 grand, I wouldn’t care. The win was great for Kauto Star and
great for racing.”

Nicholls says he would never contemplate running even the grandest ageing
horse if visual evidence told him the tank was empty. “That would never,
ever happen. While they’re in a good place they can run.”

This week brought the 20th anniversary of his first winner. On the wall of his
office is a plaque marking the 2,000th, scored this autumn. Leaving school
with £200, Nicholls was only £10,000 to the good at the end of his riding
career but impressed the landlord of Manor Farm stables, Paul Barber, and
began conquering the training profession with the same restless energy as
Sir Alex Ferguson, who is among his patrons.

Nicholls is always switched on. The reward is a yard full of four-legged
luminaries, led by Kauto Star, Master Minded and the invincible staying
hurdler, Big Buck’s, of whom Nicholls says: “It’s not as sexy a division as
the others and there’s not the opposition for him, but ability wise he’s as
good as any of them.”

But all eyes now fall on Kempton, scene of a rare Corinthian gesture by owner
Clive Smith, who pits his two best horses against each other. The script was
that Denman and Kauto Star had been usurped by the younger Long Run at
Kempton and Cheltenham. All media outlets reported the end of an era. As we
watch his two contenders ascend the hill side by side, though, Nicholls
talks of the void on the other side.

“If Kauto’s retired he’s not going to have the style of life and enjoyment he
gets now,” he says, leaning on a fence. “He absolutely thrives on what he
does. See More Business [an earlier stable star] is in a field now, at 23,
and he hasn’t got half the quality of life these horses have.

“We tried to let him go hunting and he nearly killed Marcus Armytage [of this
parish] one day. It just didn’t work. So he hasn’t been ridden properly for
five or six years. In two years after they stop they’re forgotten.”

There is no shaking Nicholls’ belief that Kauto Star is still in his prime:
“His Haydock run was his best ever there. He’s won it four times, he broke
the course record the other day and was 10 seconds faster than any of his
three previous Betfair wins.”

Understandably he savours his victory over the social-network experts.
“Twitter and Facebook are great for getting information out but some of the
abuse you get is incredible,” he says. “With some of the comments people
haven’t got a clue. Even on the Racing Post website you always get these
same people saying, ‘Oh they’re greedy running him again, they’ve squeezed
the lemon dry.’ Suddenly it’s gone the other way now. It’s ‘Oh, you’ve got
to run him in the King George.’ It’s a complete U-turn.”

To leave Desert Orchid behind in King George history Kauto Star must beat not
only Long Run but his intermittently brilliant stable companion.

Nicholls says: “I’ve trained Master Minded for the race since the minute he
came in from that field in mid-July. He’s probably 15 kilos lighter than he
was at Ascot and 25 lighter than Aintree [last term]. He’s a lot tighter and
fitter. Everything’s gone right and he’s got a lot of plusses.

“There’s a big issue of whether he’ll stay [three miles] but at Ascot last
time he tanked past Somersby and pulled himself up. With improvement to come
he’s got to be right on the premises. He was very impressive last year at
Aintree over 2½. He’s a King George winner waiting to happen — but he’s got
two big obstacles in front of him in Long Run and Kauto Star.”

The empathy between Nicholls and his finest chaser is replicated by the strong
union between horse and jockey. In last year’s delayed King George the Kauto
Star ride passed from the injured Ruby Walsh to AP McCoy, but Walsh has had
a lot more time to learn the horse’s idiosyncrasies.

“I used to think all good jockeys would get on with him. AP is a bloody star,
no doubt about that, but I know now that he goes for Ruby better than anyone
else,” Nicholls says. “I watched that King George again the other night. I
wouldn’t publicly criticise any jockey — McCoy especially — but he [Kauto
Star] definitely wasn’t enjoying it. He was never jumping, never going, and
got stuffed. I’d think Ruby is a crucial part of him. The horse believes in
him and vice versa.”

We watch Kauto Star and Master Minded chug up the hill. “Kauto and Denman
never worked together at home. These two have always gone along together,”
Nicholls says. “Look at him [Kauto]: he’s always got his ears pricked, he’s
always loving what he’s doing.”

But Long Run is still out there, sharper for his Haydock run. “He’s had two
hard races now though, hasn’t he?” Nicholls probes, mischievously. “OK, he’s
going to improve, they’ve got their eye on the bigger picture. But you’re
going to say that if you get beat, aren’t you? I thought he looked pretty
straight that day.

“He had a harder race than Kauto did in the end, and Kauto bounces back from
them, so he’s got a bit to prove. And he didn’t jump great. In last year’s
Gold Cup I think maybe Kauto and Denman shot themselves in the foot. Denman
was aggressive, which had Kauto on the limit the whole way. They almost set
it up for Long Run. He out-stayed them up the hill. But I’m under no
illusions that he’s the one to beat. We’re the underdog this time. He’s the

This is great psychological jousting in a sport that tends not to go in for
inter-stable sparring. Not only that: Kauto Star could still gallop into
another autumn: “When he won the King George for the fourth time two years
ago he came back to the winner’s enclosure like he hadn’t had a race. He’s
almost in that form, that same health.

“If he runs a really nice race I would say he’s got to run in the Gold Cup.
There’s no reason why he couldn’t have a nice summer and run in the Betfair
Chase again next autumn. That would be getting towards his swansong. He’s
not 13, he’s 11, he has the best of everything and he’s in a great place
with himself. He’s a racehorse.”

This is the kind of boldness and energy that has carried Nicholls to the top.
Kauto Star is still up there, too, on that misty hill.

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