Invariably goaded by the racing press, we are forced to decide whether we prefer the Flat or the Jumps, and the start of each season is greeted by a bombardment of tweets hailing the return of “proper racing”.
The upshot is that an unnerving bias in favour of the National Hunt code has taken root – even though it is a fact that Flat racing is thriving at present, thanks to influential investment bumping up prize money, new ideas and initiatives, booming attendances and healthy, competitive fields. In contrast, Jumps racing, except for its major festivals, is the subject of a major BHA review and struggling, blighted by poor prize money, tiny fields and a refusal to embrace much-needed measures such as 48-hour declarations.
To read many of the sport’s influential opinion-makers, you’d be forgiven for deducing that the opposite was the case. As columnists cling to the flimsiest reasoning for their prejudice, you are tempted to believe Flat racing is in crisis, simply because some of its participants don’t talk to the press very much.
One correspondent in the Racing Post even sullied his preview of Saturday’s Coral-Eclipse by describing the Flat season as “soulless”. Ask those who were at the vibrant Esher track, or the throngs who massed at Royal Ascot and will reconvene at Glorious Goodwood, York’s Ebor meeting, Doncaster’s Leger festival and Ascot’s Champions Day, if they find their entertainment soulless.
Equally, Jumps racing is brimful of heart AND soul. Most racing fans enjoy both codes. And most feel both should be treated as twins joined at the hip. Ironically, in tragedy and glory, the past week has stated such a case very well. For the phoney barriers that are erected between racing’s two codes have been blown away by our admiration for two of the sport’s great horses, National Hunt hero KAUTO STAR and the Flat’s latest star GOLDEN HORN.
While unbearably sad, the premature death of Kauto Star triggered a pleasantly surprising reaction in the media. I suspect Rod Street at Great British Racing and his gang of lobbyists worked hard to ensure the horse was given the recognition he deserved. But heartwarming bulletins on national TV and well-meant obituaries in the national newspapers helped to deflect disbelief at the news.
Most of the tributes rang true. They did justice to an amazing career that spanned eight seasons and yielded 16 Grade One successes. And they reflected a racehorse who offered the complete package of class, character, courage, speed and stamina. On the other hand, perhaps inevitably in this grief and mourning culture of ours, one or two of the eulogies were exaggerated, and the sense of bereavement had clearly been playing tricks with the memories of some.
One contributer described Kauto as the best jumper National Hunt racing had seen when, of course, jumping could be his achilles heel. Most of the time, notably when he relaxed into a graceful rhythm for his second Gold Cup triumph in 2009 and his fourth King George nine months later, Kauto was poetry in motion over his fences. But occasionally, he could be reckless. At one stage in his career, he fashioned a trend for last-fence calamities, and he was lucky to survive two frightening falls at the Cheltenham Festival, particularly in the Gold Cup of 2010, won by IMPERIAL COMMANDER.
One other tribute suggested Kauto Star was the most popular Jumps horse since DESERT ORCHID. I beg to differ. Stablemate and paddocks pal DENMAN was unquestionably the darling of the racing public at the time. It could even be argued that he was a better horse. OK, his official rating never surpassed Kauto’s 180, but when both were fit and firing at their peak, ‘The Tank’ thrashed Clive Smith’s gelding by seven lengths in the 2008 Gold Cup.
Denman was tenderly returning from his heart scare when Kauto exacted revenge 12 months later. But in arguably the most heart-stopping, magnificent Gold Cup of all time in 2011, when both were trumped by LONG RUN, Denman defeated his rival again.
What cannot be disputed, though, is that Kauto’s star rose appreciably in the public consciousness the following season when he mounted a glorious comeback to his best. With calls for retirement ringing in the background, he turned the the tables on Long Run, beating him twice to land his fourth Betfair Chase at Haydock and then his fifth King George at Kempton. Unprecedented scenes hailed the remarkable feats of a horse rising 12 that put the tin lid on his career and secured his lofty place among racing’s pantheon of legends.
One attribute that Denman could not even come close to matching was Kauto Star’s voracious versatility. At one stage, the French-bred was the offical champion chaser over all three premier distances. And let’s not forget this wasn’t achieved by a gradual graduation over time from 2m to 3m. In the memorable season of 2006/07, his first Betfair Chase and King George victories sandwiched a drop back to the minimum trip to take in the Tingle Creek at Sandown. Dessie-type dexterity, if you will!
Versatility is now a word associated with Golden Horn (see how seamlessly I moved from Jumps to Flat!) after John Gosden’s colt extended his unbeaten run to five in the Eclipse. Following his electric swoop from last to first on debut, his workmanlike grind on his seasonal re-appearance, his change of gear in the Dante and his defiance of stamina fears in the Derby, the son of Cape Cross proved he could do it from the front.
Gosden confided afterwards that the colt had never even led a piece of work at home, never mind one of the major Group One races of the season. But under a beautifully judged ride by Frankie Dettori, Golden Horn adapted to the role with aplomb. His most serious rival, THE GREY GATSBY, eyeballed him from early in the straight, but Frankie always gave the impression his mount was in control, which was reinforced by the way he surged up the hill in the final furlong.
Golden Horn’s triumph made him only the fifth horse since the war to complete the Derby/Eclipse double in the same season, although he still has some way to go before scaling the heights reached by the previous one, SEA THE STARS, who added, for good measure, a 2,000 Guineas and Arc to his CV. It is to be hoped that the Longchamp race, one that masterful trainer Gosden has harboured a lifelong ambition to conquer, will be on this colt’s agenda too in the autumn. As at Epsom, the way Golden Horn finished the Eclipse suggested 12f is certainly his optimum trip, an assertion he he will now try to underline in the King George at Ascot in three weeks’ time. Curiously, if he then makes it to France, one of his chief rivals could be stablemate JACK HOBBS, giving Gosden a taste of the inter-yard rivalry his Jumps counterpart, Paul Nicholls, dealt with so professionally in the Kauto Star-Denman era.
It is regrettable that Golden Horn looks sure to be retired to stud at the end of the campaign. While it has become fashionable to lament the decline of small, independent owner-breeders, in a sideswipe at the big battalions, it is worth noting that had the horse sported the colours of Godolphin or Coolmore, or even Qatar Racing or Al Shaqab Racing, he would be racing on at four.
It is also worth noting that while Sir Anthony Oppenheimer will receive more understanding than criticism for his Golden Horn decision, fellow owner Clive Smith has received more criticism than sympathy in the political fallout that has overshadowed Kauto Star’s death. But when the dust settles, as it always does, the legacy will be the horse. It’s horses like Kauto Star and Golden Horn that matter most to the racing public, whether they stride majestically over the pristine turf of our Flat summer or over the birch, spruce and gorse of the winter game.