The British, famously, love nothing more than placing bets. Will it snow on Christmas Day? A bookie won’t just give you odds, but will also price a market for individual cities. How about the Oscars? Sure, you could have placed a wager on The Artist winning Best Picture (but at odds of 12/1 on, no thanks!) but wouldn’t it be more fun to make a few pounds on a streaker taking to the stage? But above all, there’s nothing that tugs at the heartstrings (and wallets) quite like taking a bet on the horses.
And that was arguably one of the main reasons why betters across the land rejoiced on Monday when it was confirmed that the beloved (and “beloved” barely scratches the surface) Kauto Star (pronounced Cor-to Star, though the jockey and trainer once preferred Kay-to Star) was approved to try and win an historic third Cheltenham Gold Cup, the blue-ribbon event of steeplechasing. The 12-year-old horse’s trainer, Paul Nicholls, originally put his chances at 50-50 following a recent fall, but after managing a schooling session unscathed, Nicholls told BBC Sport that “he came through with flying colors … we were happy to say ‘Yes, he’ll run.'”
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To add to the romance, Kauto Star’s usual jockey, Ruby Walsh, took the ride as the famed horse attempted to add to his previous Gold Cup victories in 2007 and 2009. For the uninitiated, it’s worth reflecting on the horse’s heroic track record. In 40 races, he’s been victorious on 23 occasions, only unplaced six times and was the first horse to win more than £2 million ($3.14 million) in prize money over jumps. His greatest ever season was in 2006-07, when he won all six of his high-class races (at six different tracks), over distances ranging from two miles to over three-and-a-quarter. No wonder that in France, where he was bred, they called him L’Extraterrestrial.
And if you need any further proof as to why Kauto Star is so special in the eyes of horse-racing fans as well as casual betters, it’s worth watching the 2009 Gold Cup, when he became the first horse to regain the Gold Cup, having lost to stablemate Denman the previous year. You can never count Kauto out: considered well past his sell by date in 2011, he struck back to take the Betfair Chase at Haydock for the fourth time in November and then created history by winning an unprecedented fifth King George VI Chase win in six years on Boxing Day (December 26), which surpassed even the great Desert Orchid’s record in the race.
What was most intriguing about those last two triumphs was that Kauto Star saw off the new contender for the crown, Long Run, who won the Gold Cup last year. As fate, or perhaps the racing gods, would have it, they would square off Friday in a race which one could at least try to compare to the Ali-Frazier rivalry (and if that’s too brutal, try Federer-Nadal, especially as the score between the two horses going into Friday’s race was 2-2). Long Run started off as the 7/4 favorite, with Kauto Star at the slightly longer 3/1. (In fairness, his true odds would have been lengthier but as so much sentimental money was placed on him, the bookies had to react accordingly so as not to be caught cold come the final outcome.) With the legendary horse surely calling it a day regardless of the outcome, would the final chapter end in sensational success or dignified defeat? No 12-year-old has won the Gold Cup since 1969. Deliciously, the winning horse back then was named What a Myth. It couldn’t happen, could it?
As it turned out, it couldn’t — and it wasn’t so much a horse that shone through but arguably the greatest jockey of all time, AP McCoy, aboard the 8/1 shot Synchronised, that won the day. Kauto Star never got going and was actually pulled up by Ruby Walsh extremely early on with Long Run coming third. But while the cheers at the finish were fully warranted for McCoy, the sound that lingered longest was the eruption of applause that resonated around Cheltenham when it became apparent that Kauto Star was done for the day and his career. The instant tribute from the pundits was that Kauto Star doesn’t owe anybody anything. Never has a truer word been spoken in this sport which, ultimately, cannot ever allow sentiment to get in the way.