Top 10 Most Popular Horses: Kauto Star crowned the King

The Most Popular Horse of the 21st Century: Kauto Star
The Most Popular Horse of the 21st Century: Kauto Star

The countdown for the Top 10 Most Popular Horses of the 21st Century is over, with the number one spot going to a National Hunt horse that stole everyone’s heart, the mighty Kauto Star…

It just had to be, didn’t it? Any personal bias aside there is no denying that Kauto Star is THE horse of the 21st Century in almost every aspect. Ability, versatility, popularity, he excelled at everything and was mediocre at nothing, and there could be none more worthy of top spot on this list.

Where do you even begin in summing up Kauto Star. Starting his career over in France, in which he saw the racecourse 10 times for Serge Foucher - winning at Listed and Grade 3 level - Kauto Star arrived in the UK with an already lofty reputation, only heightened after winning by nine-lengths on debut. Campaigned over the minimum trip for his debut season, Kauto gave us a glimpse of just how special he could be when winning the Grade 1 Tingle Creek Chase at Sandown on only his fourth start on these shores. Although he fell in the Queen Mother Champion Chase that March (which would be his final start of the year), this Grade 1 win over two-miles truly stands out as a special achievement given his success over the longer trips later in his career. Could you imagine the likes of Al Boum Photo or Clan Des Obeaux rocking up to a Grade 1 over two-miles these days, and winning it?

Kauto

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His next season in 2006/2007 was something to behold however, and would truly thrust him into superstardom. Unbeaten in six runs, four of them Grade 1s, two of them Grade 2. Over two-mile? Check, he won back-to-back Tingle Creek's. Two-mile-four-furlong? Check, he won the Old Roan Chase at Aintree. Three-mile? Yep, the Betfair Chase and King George. Over three-miles? Of course, add the Cheltenham Gold Cup to that. The best National Hunt season of the century? Try the best ever.

No horse has managed to achieve the triple crown of Betfair Chase/King George/Cheltenham Gold Cup since, despite a £1,000,000 bonus being on offer to anyone who manages it. But so difficult is this feat that no one has really come close bar Cue Card, who fell three out in the Gold Cup when holding every chance. Add an Old Roan, Aon Chase (Now Denman Chase) and a Tingle Creek to a triple crown season and it truly looks like a career from the game Starters Orders.

So dominant was Kauto Star that he was never not the favourite for the next five years of his career, often odds on. He returned in 2007/2008 season again on the Old Roan, but was defeated by Monet’s Garden - who had a stone in hand, before winning the Betfair Chase at Haydock again, followed by the King George at Kempton - something which is somewhat of a recurring theme. Yet again the triple crown was on, and a warm up win in the Grade 1 Ascot Chase had him in the perfect position to win the Gold Cup once again. Was it really possible for a horse to be this good?

Well there was another horse who, though not quite as special, was equally as amazing and would deny him a triple crown - that horse of course being his stablemate Denman. No great shame in that, Denman was an incredible horse in his own right and the Kauto Star show would roll on.

Nicholls would dust off the passport for his seasonal return in 2008, taking on the Down Royal Champion Chase over in Ireland - no concerns there as he waltzed to an eleven-length success. What came next was probably the first big shock of Kauto Star’s career, as he went to Haydock to claim his third Betfair Chase and for only the second time of his UK career, failed to finish, unseating at the final fence. Unscathed by this incident he went back to Kempton for his third King George and what do you know, won it, putting him only one behind the great Desert Orchid in terms of King George wins.

Cheltenham was once again calling and there was a score to be settled with his stablemate Denman, who dethroned him the year prior. Billed as one of the clashes of the Century, it did not disappoint as the two legends rolled down the hill neck and neck and turned for home together. Kauto was always going the best however, and with two scintillating leaps at the final two fences he dispatched of Denman to become the first ever horse to regain the Cheltenham Gold Cup - legend status well and truly achieved.

There was still more to be done however. And you know the drill by now - win the Betfair Chase and the King George to get the season underway. Two of National Hunt’s toughest races, and he just kept winning them seemingly at his leisure, with the tally now reading three Betfair Chases and four King George’s. Again it was back to Cheltenham but again he would fall short in his bid for a second triple crown, this time falling with Imperial Commander taking victory.

By now Kauto Star was ageing and the best of him was almost certainly behind him, and although he won the Down Royal Champion Chase at the start of the year, his 10/11-year-old season showed that the fire that once roared in his belly was starting to diminish. Beaten 19-lengths in the King George by the young hot shot Long Run, and again beaten by 11-lengths in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, he just didn’t look like the best horse on planet earth anymore. He ended the year with a trip to Punchestown but would fail to finish, pulled up after five fences having never travelled a yard. At age 11, it seemed as if this would be the final time we’d see the great Kauto Star. He had never finished outside the top two when standing since he came to these shores and in this season he had done so twice, and failed to finish the other. But finishing over in Ireland pulled up after only 5 fences? That’s an unceremonious way to retire for a champion like Kauto, and Nicholls gave him one more chance to prove he was still able with one last run in the Betfair Chase for the 2011/12 season, a poor run surely spelling retirement.

 

Most Iconic Performance(s) 

Our Most Popular list has not been defined by ability, manner or level of success, it’s based off those very special moments where the horse in question makes our hairs stand on end, puts butterflies in our stomachs and leaves us speechless. Kauto Star did this, a lot, but none more so than in the 2011 Betfair Chase and King George.

I tired to pick just one of these for the sake of consistency with our other nine articles but i truly can’t split them, so for this one we have two.

With retirement on the horizon, Kauto Star simply needed to win or at the very least come a close second but as the 6/1 joint-third favourite, three years elder than his next oldest rival and opposing Long Run who had beaten him twice the season prior, it really did not look likely. But we should have learned by now to never right Kauto Star off. This generational talent didn’t really do losing, it wasn’t really wired into him and after three consecutive losses he had to right those wrongs, and no one could stop him that day at Haydock.

Making all and seemingly never prepared to relinquish his lead, the great Kauto Star showed us everything that made him brilliant. Speed, stamina, strength, an insane level of jumping ability - he just had it all - and as he cleared the last with a strong lead over Long Run there was an almighty eruption from the crowd as the king was back - those butterflies I mentioned earlier? I’d say it’s 10/1-on you have them watching it back now. As Nick Luck described it in the immediate aftermath ‘One of horseracing’s great magical moments’.

But it didn’t stop there, Kauto Star was clearly not ready for the field yet and a return to Kempton - the scene of some of his finest moments - beckoned as he looked to regain his King George crown from Long Run. The latter the favourite once again, everyone expected Long Run to improve from his Betfair Chase run and see Kauto Star off as he did twice the season prior and he duly did, winni...

Of course he didn’t. Kauto Star put on one of his finest ever performances in a career that was stacked with breath-taking moments. All but making all once again, there was a realisation once he jumped the final fence on the back straight of the final circuit that he was going the best by quite some margin. Long Run was hard off the bridle about three-lengths down, Captain Chris and Somersby also but King Kauto was cruising, history only three fences in front of him.

He jumped them all with excellence, as he did for all his career and the leap at the last? Utterly breathtaking. I envy everyone that was at Kempton that day, I can only imagine the feeling when he landed after the last with the short stretch in front of him, memories for a lifetime I’m sure. Long Run was closing but it was all in vain, Kauto had done enough and he won his fifth King George. History rewritten, again.

We would see Kauto Star once more on the racecourse in the 2012 Cheltenham Gold Cup, but he was pulled up before the tenth fence having not looked like his normal self. With the outcome of this almost certainly being retirement, the Cheltenham faithful gave him a resounding round of applause as Ruby Walsh took him away from the pack, that was his swansong and we all knew it. What a pleasure it was to watch Kauto Star, what delight he brought us and what memories he gave us. We may never see another like him and if we don’t, how lucky are we to be able to say we were there for the reign of the one true King of racing - Kauto Star.

Ranking in full:

10 - Native River

9 - Sea The Stars

8 - Tiger Roll

7 - Hurricane Fly

6 - Enable

5 - Sprinter Sacre

4 - Faugheen

3 - Denman

2 - Frankel

1 - Kauto Star

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