Ever since Kauto Star’s appearance in a ‘demo’ at Olympia, which can be seen HERE if you haven’t seen it already, the equestrian world has been abuzz with varying opinions about what went on.
Of course, we don’t know exactly what caused Kauto Star to go like that. Was he worked too hard for too long before the session? Was it really ‘stage fright’ at the big, close-to-the-arena crowds, bright lights and huge atmosphere for which Olympia is famous? Did the 10.30pm demo time (switched from an early 6pm slot apparently) not suit him at all? Was he perhaps given a calmer or sedative to make sure he wasn’t explosive and potentially dangerous in such a setting? Did he ‘tie up’ (muscle cramps of the huge hindquarter muscles, which can make a horse become very reluctant to move) which would have shown up in a blood test straight after, if taken?
I don’t think it actually matters much WHY he went like that. The unpalatable but inescapable truth is that this living legend of a racehorse, who won 16 Grade 1 races, netting his connections £2,375,883 (no, that is NOT a typo, it really does read £2.3 million pounds), who is right up there with Arkle and Red Rum in the pantheon of the very greatest National Hunt racehorses EVER, who romped to an unprecedented FIVE King George VI Chase victories and won the Cheltenham Gold Cup twice, was reduced, publicly, to looking like a worn-out riding-school kickalong, one which a very good 4* rider could barely get to move. He is no ordinary horse, he is a god among horses, but somehow ended up looking worse than most of them.
As a reasonably experienced rider, and the owner and rider of a sometimes-hysterical ex-racer, I can personally attest that it is very unusual for a hot-blooded horse to react as he did to that sort of atmosphere and treatment. Ex-racers don’t usually shut down and try to refuse to move. Getting hyper-reactive and trying to zoom away from whatever is bothering them is usually more their style.
I am 100% not undermining Laura Collett’s usual riding ability. She has already achieved far more than I ever will in the saddle. She is trained by the best and rides lots of incredibly talented horses very impressively, with great success, at high levels. Nobody is taking that away from her. This is absolutely not a bitchy post about her riding, heaven forfend.
I am not criticising Kauto Star’s care. He looked great in himself. I am sure he has a very nice life at her yard. This is not a welfare case… god forbid. There are neglected horses all over the country literally starving to death… so, please, anyone who wants to play the ‘welfare’ card, for god’s sake get a bit of perspective, and go and flash it where you can save some poor equine who desperately needs your help.
The fact is that most horses who do exceptionally well at their first career, well enough to be a household name, automatically earn a very nice retirement, especially if they are owned by people who can afford to do that for them. This horse had, in the eyes of his adoring public, more than earned his keep for the rest of his days. He owed nobody any more limelight, wins, or anything else.
He deserved either a quiet retirement (and mooching around in a field with his mates for the rest of his days, just being a horse, well-fed and well cared for, would not be a grim fate) or a new job that he obviously enjoyed. Escorting the young racehorses on the yard (where they were desperate to keep him, if press stories at the time were true) or perhaps a different career of hunting and/or Team Chasing, as the other legend from Paul Nicholl’s yard, Denman, who was always stabled next to Kauto Star, did. Photos of Denman (such as THIS article posted yesterday… interesting timing, H&H!) show a horse with ears pricked, running and jumping keenly. That, to the horsey public, is a demonstrably ‘happy horse’ in a new job that he enjoys.
Unfortunately, however they dress it up, however good Kauto Star looked in previous demos with Laura Collett, he did not look like a happy horse the other night. He was swishing his tail, and very reluctant to go forward, ignoring kicks from the legs, repeated flicks from the whip and tugs on the reins (actions which made a lot of us wince). This is the horse who galloped tirelessly for miles and sailed over steeplechase fences with impunity, winning fortunes for tens of thousands of adoring fans?
If it had been just any old racehorse, we would all have probably said ‘tough luck, the horse just ‘shut down’ for some reason’… but this is Kauto. He is not, and never will be, just ‘any old racehorse’. He’s the racing public’s darling.
He didn’t deserve that treatment, whatever the cause of his behaviour. Once he started to go like that, and it didn’t get better after a few determined urgings, someone, and it doesn’t matter who, should have stopped it. We all know horses have their good and bad days (for whatever reason). If Laura had patted him, jumped off, and said something like “sorry everyone, it’s not working tonight, he’s not coping with the atmosphere, bless him” and just led him around and out, I doubt anyone would have had anything but the highest praise for her. No rosettes were at stake, and she’s more than used to riding in front of a crowd. If Yogi Breisner, who was in the arena commentating, (an incredibly experienced trainer who always knows exactly what he’s looking at, having steered TeamGB’s eventers to countless international victories for many years) had said something similar, giving Laura the signal to stop and bring him in, I’m sure we would all have sighed with relief and let it go. That’s horses, sometimes it doesn’t quite work. We all know that.
Surely they could have chatted about him until the Olympia organisers sorted out a filler for the time Kauto should have filled strutting his stuff. But unfortunately that didn’t happen. His sides were kicked and the reins were tugged to absolutely no avail, and he just looked increasingly reluctant and unhappy. Even if it was just a one-off, even if it never happens again… what next? He’s never going to be ‘a dressage horse’. I hugely doubt they’d be willing to risk him going Eventing, and Laura Collett has no shortage of fantastically promising event horses to ride already. At his age, and history, he’s not going to Rio. What beckons… local dressage at the lower levels, to win a rosette? Are they going to persist in this endeavour, trying to prove everyone wrong?
Unfortunately, it looks as if the legions of vociferous racing fans who so loudly and publicly lamented Kauto’s removal from Paul Nicholl’s yard and proposed career as a ‘dressage horse’ with Laura Collett two years ago were all absolutely right.
Mission accomplished, if the mission was to find a generous new Owner for a hugely promising young event horse for Laura to ride, hopefully to future Team glory – Pamero 4, the 2* horse sourced from Germany for Kauto’s owner Clive Smith, has had a phenomenal year with Laura ably piloting him. An absolutely heartfelt Good Luck to them. I hope he continues to go from strength to strength for her. I hope Clive Smith likes being an Event Horse Owner as much, or more than, he likes being a Racehorse Owner. If Pamero 4 and Laura Collett keep going as they have been, perhaps he’ll be an Owner at a major Championships.
But if the mission was, as it should have been, to find Kauto Star something fun to do for the rest of his days, and show the doubting, vociferous fans that he is enjoying it, I fear it has, most publicly, failed. In the week where a statue commemorating him will be unveiled at Kempton, nobody is forgetting that the Legend is still Living.
I devoutly hope the horse will be put first from now on. He deserves it.