As Kauto Star bids to make racing history, Tom Richmond speaks to Sam Thomas – a jockey who knows the champion well.
SAM Thomas knows how to win on Kauto Star, the record-breaking chaser seeking an unprecedented fifth successive King George VI Chase triumph. His breakthrough victory, as a jockey, came aboard the champion.
The rider also knows how to defeat the Paul Nicholls-trained equine superstar – Thomas was in the saddle when Kauto Star's great stablemate, and rival, Denman won the 2008 Cheltenham Gold Cup with a relentless piece of frontrunning.
And Thomas was also able to witness Kauto Star's brilliance around Kempton when he tried – and failed – to land the Boxing Day showcase 12 months ago aboard the progressive Nacarat, one of the most popular horses in training.
He is, therefore, perfectly qualified to talk about Kauto Star's place in history – and the size of the task facing the 10-year-old's challengers on Sunday.
"If he goes and wins a fifth King George, and I hope he does, his record will stand for a very, very long time and deservedly so," Thomas told the Yorkshire Post.
"They say the quality of horses is getting better and better, and I don't disagree with that, but Kauto Star is one of a kind who we should all enjoy."
As Kauto Star prepares for his date with destiny – so far the biggest obstacles appear to be the snow-bound gallops at the Nicholls yard and inclement weather at Kempton, a gentle hack away from chaos-hit Heathrow Airport – some historical perspective is required.
From a steeplechasing purist's viewpoint, this is the second most important race in the calendar after the Gold Cup with the horses all carrying an equal weight. It has been won by the sport's greats.
Arkle triumphed in 1965 before suffering a career-ending injury 12 months later. Silver Buck was twice a winner for Yorkshire's all-conquering Dickinson stable whose Wayward Lad went on to win three renewals from the family's Harewood stables.
From then, Desert Orchid – the 'silver shadow' – lit up Kempton with four exhilarating victories that spanned five years. No one thought that the galloping grey's record would be eclipsed; Dessie's attempt at a fifth King George ended with a horrific fall and then a standing ovation as the mud-splattered horse rose to his feet and galloped, riderless, past the packed stands.
And then came Kauto Star whose first victory, in 2006, will always be remembered for a lunge at the final fence when he held a commanding advantage.
Thomas, however, has no doubts about why the bay gelding is so suited to Kempton – a flat track that offers a complete contrast to Cheltenham's undulations which provide a greater test of endurance.
"He is the type of horse who can travel and jump at speed. He doesn't waste any time in the air," explained the 26-year-old after securing an eye-catching double on Nicholls-trained horses this week on Kempton's all-weather circuit. "This is a huge asset for any racehorse. He also takes his fences in his stride; he just doesn't seem to exert as much energy as his rivals at the obstacles.
"Last year, I hoped that a fast pace on Nacarat would, perhaps, take the sting out of Kauto Star turning into the home straight for the final three fences. If only.
"It was heartbreaking, on the final bend, to look around to see him there, and travelling with such ease. We'd gone flat out and he looked like he had only just joined the race."
Perhaps the most impressive victory of a dazzling career, the winning margin was so emphatic that it was called as a 'distance' before later being estimated at a mere 36 lengths. It was a performance comparable to the great Arkle.
No wonder Thomas was beaten. "By going so fast on Nacarat, it cost us a first three finish – we were fourth and running on empty – and played to Kauto Star's strength
"At the end of the day, you just have to accept that he is a class act and to be proud to have ridden in such a race, and also enjoyed one of the biggest wins of my career on him."
That success came in November 2007 when Thomas, deputising for the injured Ruby Walsh, won the 2007 Betfair Chase at Haydock.
Yet, while Kauto Star has won his quartet of King George triumphs by making a decisive move in the home straight, Thomas – on that memorable day – had to take up the running more than a mile from home.
That the horse is so versatile, and can adapt to changing tactics, makes him even more special, says the rider.
"Haydock was a complete role reversal; he won from the front and I shall never forget that. It was awesome," he said.
"People think he is a pretty boy but, deep down, he has a big heart and bags and bags of stamina.
"He had the speed to win a Tingle Creek over two miles – and the stamina to win two Gold Cups. Probably only Desert Orchid had that scope but look at Kauto's winning margins in the King George – eight lengths, then 11, then 8 then 36 and against good horses. We should enjoy him while we can.
"Of course, he can be beaten, but it will take a horse like Denman to do it, and I'm not sure there are any that good and brave in the King George field."
Thomas, with typical thoughtfulness, pauses, and understandably so, when asked whether Kauto Star is the best horse that he has ridden.
"A tough one," he says. "Certainly one of the very best."
The hesitancy can be explained by his enduring association with the imperious Denman following their 2008 Gold Cup triumph. "The only thing was to see if Kauto made mistakes by stretching him on the second circuit and get him into trouble, and bring his stamina into play.
"It worked, but I cannot see that happening in the King George which is two furlongs shorter than the Cheltenham race. Denman will always be special, but Kauto isn't far behind."
Thomas is unsure whether he will have a ride in Sunday's feature.
Though he still rides for the Nicholls stable, 15-time champion jockey AP McCoy will deputise for both Ruby Walsh, who rode Kauto Star to his four Kempton triumphs, and his substitute Noel Fehily. Both are sidelined with injury.
Inevitably, the King George build-up is being dominated by comparisons between Kauto Star and Desert Orchid. And, while the retired commentator Sir Peter O'Sullevan says he would not like to separate the accomplishments of the two horses, he believes 'Dessie' was probably the more popular because of his colour while Kauto Star, perhaps, has the superior record because of his Gold Cup victories in 2007 and 2009.
"It would have been some race to call – Dessie versus Kauto," he ponders.
"Even more so if a Silver Buck, for example, was in the field."
This view is shared by Michael Dickinson whose father Tony held the training licence when Silver Buck won the 1979 and 1980 renewals. On both occasions, Tommy Carmody was in the saddle. But Dickinson believes the horse was even better when ridden by Robert Earnshaw, the man who was in the saddle for the horse's 1982 Gold Cup triumph and who is now a highly-respected stipendiary steward who lives near Harrogate.
"I would love to have seen Silver Buck at his best taking on Kauto Star," says the retired trainer. "When Silver Buck used to hit the front, he would stop so as a result he never won his races by very far. He usually had a lot in hand at the finish and we never really saw the best of him. However, it is a pointless exercise to compare horses from different generations because so much changes."
Thomas is right when he says that such horses should be enjoyed. They do not come along very often.
And, as he added, it takes a true champion to be mentioned in the same sentence as Desert Orchid and Arkle.
"Like racing celebrated Tony McCoy winning the BBC Sports Personality of the year award this week, we should do the same with Kauto Star – he could set a record that is never broken," added Thomas.
So how do two greats compare at Kempton?
Prize money: 654,066
1986: A 16-1 outsider, Desert Orchid announces himself with a brilliant piece of front running and wins by 15 lengths.
1987: The Francois Doumen-trained Nupsala proves too good for 'Dessie'.
1988: A golden run of eight successive victories, including the King George, precedes Cheltenham Gold Cup glory.
1989: After Simon Sherwood's retirement, Richard Dunwoody enjoys a winning ride.
1990: Emulates Yorkshire-trained Wayward Lad to become the first four-time winner of the King George.
1991: The great grey is retired after a heavy fall at the third final fence.
Prize money: 2,086,991
2006: Survives a last-fence jumping blunder to record first win in Boxing Day feature.
2007: An imperious display sees Kauto Star finish 11 lengths clear of Our Vic.
2008: Eight-length win over Albertas Run follows a vintage display of jumping.
2009: Equals Desert Orchid's four King George wins with one of the all-time great jumping performances, a 30-length victory.
What the experts say
I get a bit embarrassed when asked to compare the two because they are both wonderful horses. Records are there to be broken and it will be great for racing if Kauto Star wins – Desert Orchid's trainer David Elsworth.
Desert Orchid had a touch more charisma about him. Both are models of appeal but, in terms of popularity, Dessie would edge it – Retired commentator Sir Peter O'Sullevan.
Kauto Star is the better. To win four King George's on the trot is just incredible and he saves his best for Kempton – North Yorkshire trainer Ferdy Murphy.
Multiple winners of the same race
5 – Golden Miller: Winner of Cheltenham Gold Cup from 1932-36.
5 – Further Flight: Won successive renewals of Newmarket's Jockey Club Cup between 1991-95.
5 – Manhattan Boy: Landed the Peacehaven Selling Hurdle at Plumpton in 1993 for fifth time.
6 – Gods Solution: Six successes in Catterick's Around Yorkshire Handicap from 1985-91.
6 – Brown Jack: Won Queen Alexandra Stakes at Royal Ascot from 1929-34.
7 – Risk of Thunder: Won La Touche Cup over Punchestown's Cup every year from 1995-2002.