When Kauto Star ended an indifferent season with a dismal run at Punchestown in May, there were widespread calls for his retirement.
Even the greatest sports stars cannot hold back the years for ever. And the evidence of two comprehensive defeats by the shining new champion, Long Run, suggested that Kauto Star was no longer the force he was.
Many expected Paul Nicholls and Clive Smith to pension off their wonderful old campaigner. That would have been the easy option.
To their eternal credit they held their nerve, decided to give the horse one more chance to show that he was not a back number and have been rewarded with a revival of epic proportions.
The sight of Kauto Star bouncing back to form with a thunderous victory in the Betfair Chase at Haydock in November was then trumped by his storming to a record fifth success in the King George VI Chase at Kempton a few days short of his 12th birthday.
On both occasions he dismissed the young upstart Long Run with contemptuous disdain. Now the pair are set for another mouth-watering encounter in the Gold Cup.
The stress of training a national treasure is evident as Nicholls described his feeling ahead of that astonishing victory at Haydock.
“After he ran no race at Punchestown a lot of people suggested he should be retired,” he said. “They don’t know the horse and should really have kept their opinions to themselves because all it did was put pressure on me.
“Clive and I always try to do the right thing for this horse. His welfare comes first and we felt that realistically he had only two or three races left. We decided to get him in this season and see how he was going. If I’d been unhappy at any stage I’d have rung Clive and have no doubt that he would have retired him.”
A conversation between owner and trainer at the time offered an intriguing insight into their thoughts.
Nicholls recalls “When Clive was talking in terms of going for the King George again I told him to forget it,” Nicholls said. “I felt the horse was a little bit on the decline which was hardly surprising at his age and was not going to get back to his best of the past. His runs at Down Royal and Kempton were nowhere near as good as in previous years.”
Then, to his trainer’s evident delight, Kauto Star was soon bounding along his gallops without a care in the world.
“Ahead of the race at Haydock he was giving us great vibes,” Nicholls said. “I was astounded by the way he was going. I don’t know why, but he has seemed much better in himself this season. Last winter his breathing was a concern. He was making a bit of a noise and then suffered some minor bleeding after he was beaten by Long Run at Kempton.
“My assistant, Dan Skelton, has a theory that it took him 12 months to get over his heavy fall in the 2010 Gold Cup. He’s probably right, though we’ll never know for sure.
“This time Kauto looks fabulous and his enthusiasm for work is unbelievable. One day in the snow he was bucking and kicking and virtually running away with my head lad, Clifford Baker. He couldn’t hold one side of him. The sparkle was definitely still there.
“Haydock was special for so many reasons, not least because I have never trained a horse like this before and never will again. And yes, there had to be a chance that days like that had gone. That’s why I was so nervous. I am so proud of what he did at Haydock and Kempton. It was awesome for racing and for him.”
Nicholls has displayed the gifts of a magician in turning round the career of Kauto Star at the venerable age of 12 although given his record with veterans in the past such as See More Business, Earthmover and Royal Auclair we should not be surprised.
Ask Nicholls how he keeps his old horses wanting to come back for more each season and he struggles to find an explanation. He talks of the importance of top-class facilities and constantly maintaining and harrowing gallops to reduce the risk of injury.
He also points to the benefits of sticking to a tried-and-trusted system and keeping his horses healthy, aided by the best feed available. Yet that is surely only half the story.
Press him further and he shrugs his shoulders: “I really don’t know the answer. Part of it is being sensible and doing the obvious things. I suppose the trick is to try to keep them enjoying what they are doing, to maintain their enthusiasm. Keep horses to the same routine and they are happy.”
In the days when we worked together on his autobiography, Nicholls made it clear that racehorses should not be pampered or treated like pets.
“My philosophy is to work them hard to get them fit then work them hard to keep them fit,” he said. “We never stop changing how we train them. Take Kauto Star. This winter we have been tougher with him than before and he is clearly thriving on it.
“We tried to give him a few quiet days after Kempton but he was so fresh Clifford said we had to start cantering him again or he’d do something silly.”
We have not seen a chaser to match Kauto Star since the heady days of Arkle. When he steps out in the Gold Cup on March 16th he will be appearing at the Cheltenham Festival for the seventh consecutive year. But for an injury sustained in January 2005 it would be eight.
In that time he has survived X-certificate falls that would have finished lesser horses, yet he has still won 16 Grade-One chases.
No wonder Nicholls says admiringly: “Kauto defies everything you have seen with every other horse. He is totally remarkable. For me he is the best ever.”
This article was written by Jonathan Powell for Close Up, the world’s best informed sports and betting magazine. Click here to get a FREE version of Close Up for your iPAD.