Thursday, December 23, 2010

King Kauto

Camberley Heath Golf Club is located about 40 miles west of London, the hundred year old course is said to be as challenging as it is visually stunning. Clive Smith, better known as the owner of Kauto Star, was a captain of Camberley Heath and it was from there that he drew the inspiration for the purple, green and yellow colours that Kauto Star races in. The distinct colours represent the sprinkling of heather and pine on the golf course.

Smith, 59, is a racehorse owner for over twenty years. He set out to acquire a top class chaser in 2004 and his original target had been Garde Champetre. He bid some €560,000 for this horse but JP McManus topped Smith’s offer by €60,000 and in doing so, set a record for the most expensive national hunt ever purchased. Through his bloodstock agent, Anthony Bromley (who is also responsible for the procurement of Binocular, Albertas Run and Celestial Halo) Smith parted with €400,000 for Kauto Star, following a recommendation from Paul Nicholls who saw clips of the horse running in Auteuil where he was a Grade Three winner over hurdles.

In France, Kauto Star was a precocious, prodigious talent, known fondly as 'L'Extraterrestre' ('The Extraterrestrial') predominantly for his otherworldly ability; he has since become the outstanding staying chaser of his generation. Twice a winner of the Tingle Creek, Champion Chase, Gold Cup and a three-time winner of the Betfair Chase, he is seeking an unprecedented five-timer in the King George VI Chase at Kempton.

Over the past six seasons, he has run in 25 races, winning 17 of these (a 68% strike rate) and placed second in 5, he has fallen twice and unseated just once. In 2007 his owner collected a £1 million bonus following a promotion by the Betting Exchange Betfair, who offered the prize money to the connections of the winner of the Betfair Chase, King George and Cheltenham Gold Cup. Kauto Star claimed all three at his ease and the Betfair Million scheme was dropped a year later.

Smith’s costly investment has paid considerable dividends. When Kauto Star topped the Order Of Merit in 2007, (an initiative designed to reward horseracing excellence and participation) his owner collected £200,000 from the British Horseracing Authority. Since then he has progressed further and become the first National Hunt horse in history to win over £2m in prize money.

Kauto Star is the highest rated national hunt horse throughout the past fifty years. Timeform have allocated the ten year old gelding with a rating of 191, alongside Mill House, this is the third highest rating of all time Only Flyingbolt (210) and the peerless Arkle (212) surpass him.

On St .Stephen’s Day, despite the arctic weather conditions, the organisers of Kempton Racecourse are expecting a crowd of 20,000 to witness Kauto Star write himself into the history books. In doing so he aims to beat Desert Orchid’s joint record of four wins in the race. In all likelihood it will be his penultimate start, only the Gold Cup remains as his solitary target after St. Stephen’s Day.

Reports from many quarters believe that Kauto Star is simply too old to win another Gold Cup. This was substantiated amid reports around Cheltenham this year that no 10 or 11 year old horse has ever won the Gold Cup. This is untrue, on no less than eighteen occasions have horses between the ages of 10 and 12 won the Cheltenham Gold Cup, notably Desert Orchid (10), Cool Dawn (10 & 11) and Silver Fame (12).

Notwithstanding, plenty around this age bracket have also won the King George. Desert Orchid won the race as both a 10 and 11 year old, Wayward Lad (10) and Edredon Bleu (11) further bolster the claims of Kauto Star.

Trainer Paul Nicholls has yet to report signs of decline in the gelding. His jockey for the King George, freshly-crowned and BBC Sports Personality of the year, Tony McCoy noted before his recent run at Down Royal that “Kauto Star is as good a horse as I have ever seen”. Coming from a 15-times Champion jockey who won a King George on Best Mate, who also won three Gold Cups, this is the highest endorsement that can be bestowed.

Kauto Star has a compelling style over fences, his jumping has improved year on year and it culminated in a staggering performance in the King George. Winning by 36 lengths, Kauto was imperious and set a new record in the race, breaking Arkle's 44 year old record of 30 lengths.

At a recent press day at Manor Farm stables, Kauto Star faced the reporters and cameras coolly, comfortably, like the professional he is. Adorned in a warm blue blanket blazoned with the words ““I Will Make History” he looked every inch a champion. Making history for Kauto Star is second nature, he is already the first horse in history to win a Gold Cup, lose the title and then reclaim it.

Will he become the first horse to win five King George’s?

Without a doubt, remember he is not of this world and so he makes his own path among the stars.

Kauto Star Facts:
Foaled: 19 March, 2000
Breeding: Village Star (FR) - Kauto Relka (FR) (Port Etienne (FR))
Breeder: Mme H Aubert
Owner: Mr Clive D Smith
Trainer: P F Nicholls
Career placings: 21/11F2353/112/21F/111111/211122/1U11-11F-1
Prize Money to date: 2.45 million Euros (excluding a £1 million Betfair bonus and £200,000 order of merit prize)

Monday, December 20, 2010

Joyeux Noël

Here’s a question, what happens in France every Christmas Eve that does not happen in either Ireland or England? No, it’s not Santa Claus exclusively visiting the land of Les Bleus. Would you believe; perish the thought, that there is horse racing in France on the 24th of December. Unless the likes of Willie Mullins, Noel Meade and Barry Geraghty have taken full advantage of the recent cold snap to carry out some early Christmas shopping, it is likely for those involved in National Hunt racing that Christmas Eve is the day when many last-minute gifts are hastily acquired for their loved ones.

Over the Christmas holidays, while many of us put our feet up and watch racing from the comfort of our living rooms, the trainers and jockeys of Ireland undergo one of their busiest times of the year. For instance, between Ireland and the UK, there were ten scheduled meetings on St. Stephen’s Day last year. In 2009 the racecourses were not even playing catch-up like is the case of late with race meetings being abandoned unceasingly due to the prevalent snow and ice.

In an effort to clear the backlog of postponed races, Fairyhouse racecourse staged a stellar midweek card recently. It was a superb all-Grade affair, the type normally reserved for showcase Saturdays. It featured no less than four Grade One races alongside a Grade Two and a Grade Three. With trainer Willie Mullins a major player on the day, it whetted the appetite for his Christmas assault on the Leopardstown festival and further afield.

Make no mistake; the standard of racing around Christmas is first rate. For years now, the big races run around this time of year have become trials for the major Cheltenham races in March. For instance, this year's Arkle winner, Sizing Europe, won the €90,000 Grade 1 Bord Na Mona Novice Chase on St. Stephen's Day at Leopardstown. RSA Winner Weapon's Amnesty was a short head second to Pandorama in the Knight Frank Novice Chase at the same meet. With Kauto Star aiming for his fifth King George in Kempton on St. Stephens’s day, beating the record of Desert Orchid, this is a peak in the racing season and a true showcase for the best of equine and human talent and what that partnership entails.

The organisers of the Leopardstown Christmas festival expect a crowd of 55,000 to attend over their four day meet. Given that just over 3,000 appeared at Fairyhouse for their all-Grade card, it gives the racing public an opportunity to make up for lost time and turn out en masse and view the superstars of Irish racing before many of them will be put away until Cheltenham.

Looking at the racing calendar for the week between St. Stephen’s Day and New Years is akin to picking up the Christmas RTE Guide and seeing that all your favourite films are on at different times. You are not left disappointed with the fare that is served up. There are so many highlights to choose from, The Long Walk Hurdle at Newbury, The Christmas Hurdle and Feltham Chase at Kempton, the reappearance of "horse of the year" Big Zeb taking on Golden Silver in Paddy Power Dial - A - Bet chase, the rematch of Hurricane and Solwhit. The racing is prestigious and the rewards are immense.

A quick snapshot of the prize money shows that The Paddy Power Chase is worth €190,000, the future Champions Novice Hurdle €80,000, The Lexus Chase €150,000, little wonder racing around this time of year attracts the very best of Irish and UK runners. For some trainers and jockeys, there this represents a nice Christmas bonus, for others it represents a learning curve.

Such was the case after a poor performance in last year’s King George, where trainer Nigel Twiston-Davies’ star jumper Imperial Commander was beaten 63 lengths by Kauto Star. A lesson was learned, ability is nothing without realisation and this was a turning point in the horses career. From that point on, Twiston-Davies conditioned the horse to the point where he was described as “a ball of muscle” when taking on Kauto Star in The Gold Cup and we all know the result. We will see examples of such progression this year, from unexpected quarters perhaps.

Often it is the improvements you see in horses from Christmas to March that makes watching racing at this time of year so special. Horses are like athletes, they peak at various points in their careers and if you can time these peaks, the results can be spectacular.

For the past few weeks, amidst the frozen ground and arctic climate, horses fitness has to be maintained, novices must undergo schooling sessions, work in the training yard carries on, uneasy, unending. When the silks are donned and the hats are tilted in victory in the winner’s enclosures over the next few weeks, it is such thoughts that make for a Happy Christmas for all.

In France they say “Snowy Christmas, wonderful summer”, there will be plenty of time for fresh green pastures for horses once the season is over, but for the horses now there is work to be done and races to be won, and maybe an extra carrot or two as a treat, left behind by Rudolph.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

E = mc2

E = mc2

2005 was not all that long ago, five short years, yet it seems like an age. At Cheltenham that year, Kicking King won the Gold Cup, Hardy Eustace the Champion Hurdle and in Aintree Hedgehunter claimed the Grand National. In all there were nine Irish winners at Cheltenham and eight at Aintree A good year for the Irish then but an even better one for Horse Racing Ireland (HRI).

It was amidst the halcyon days of the Celtic Tiger that long-since-lost phenomenon, when CEO of HRI, Brian Kavanagh reported the attendance at Irish racecourses was 1.43 million; betting was up, the Tote grew and value of horse sales at public auction flared from €113 million to €146 million. In 2005, 16,500 people were employed in the racing industry and the breeding sector alone contributed €330 million to the economy.

Amidst all the back-slapping and cheap money, there were surprisingly striking changes in the taxation structures of the racing industry. The stallion taxation exemption was ended and betting tax was reduced from 2% to 1% and in turn, absorbed by the bookies. Now where are we five years later? Without a palpable need to be rhetoric, we are languishing in the chaos caused by a collapsed countrywide cocoon; as every radio and television station is affirming, the party is well and truly over.
A recent report by UCD based economist, Colm McCarthy stated that c.14,000 people are directly employed in the breeding and horse industries. The most recent figures for Britain are 18,500 employed directly with 52,000 employed in betting, the overall figures are 100,000 full time equivalent jobs being supported, directly or indirectly in racing.

In Ireland, the figure of 14,000 stated in the McCarthy report does not include those people employed in betting, nor should it. Paddy Power stated of late that the majority of their betting revenue does not stem from racing; this is not surprising given their marketing engine and website which has diversified heavily into soccer and sports betting.

The Tallaght-based firm have become Ireland’s eighth largest company, not just in the gambling or online betting market but in a list of every single Irish company. They are exempt from inclusion as they do not shoe horses; they offer 50/1 for Brian Lenihan to pose as Santa Claus when delivering his 2011 Budget.

Novelty aside, there are stark figures to contend with. There has been a cut in Government funding in the region of 22% over the past two years to the industry. As racing and gambling are yin and yang, the minister for finance does not believe he is getting a big enough slice of the betting pie, and he may be right.

In 2002, €68 million in tax was generated from €1 billion of betting turnover in the industry, in 2009 the tax take has more than halved to €31 million despite a 550% increase in betting turnover to €5.5 billion. This is not an anomaly; it is an errant failure in the financial management of betting tax, despite the 1% reduction in 2005.

Simply put, with betting tax generating just €31 million from €5.5 billion of turnover, (that’s a lot of zeroes, €5,500,000,000) that’s a tax return of 0.18% on your turnover. Unsustainable from the Governments perspective and as such, it was addressed in yesterday’s budget.

Before delivering the 2011 budget, the Minister for Finance had already announced that the Government would double the current 1% levy on bookies' turnover. This will net the exchequer €40 million. During the Budget speech, the Minister announced that bets placed on the internet by domestic customers will be subject to same level of betting duty as high street betting shops, meaning a resultant injection of betting tax which can be fed back to HRI.

The racing industry is on-course to face a €28 million gap in its finances and the measures taken by Brian Lenihan will take time to trickle down to actual capital in terms of those employed by the industry. The measures will also no doubt result in calls from within the industry that it will put bookmakers out of business and lead to job losses, but for the sake of the industry as a whole, they must be taken, there will come a time when the seed will sprout.

With the ultimate goal of Horse Racing Ireland to create an industry that is self-funding, any pain that must be felt is to ensure that we maintain our deserved reputation as one of the greatest breeding, training and horse racing countries in the world.

Amidst all this we could all do with some words of encouragement; those that come to mind are that “In the middle of difficulty lies opportunity”. Spoken by an educated man who, when trying to make a career could not find a job as a teacher, he knew a thing or two about enduring hardship before success. He was Albert Einstein.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Cue Call

Cue Call

When Cue Card won the Cheltenham Champion Bumper on St. Patrick’s Day, not alone was he the youngest winner of the race in over ten years, at 40/1 he was also the biggest-priced. He was also just one of two four-year olds entered in the race (the other being Hidden Universe). His only previous win had been in a 1m 6f Fontwell bumper but looking a little closer into the race which he won by an extended 6l.
The form of the Fontwell race held up well as both the second and fourth horses (Caught By Witness, Dusky Bob) won cosily by a combined 9l next time out. Trained at Milborne Port by Colin Tizzard, the manner in which Cue Card won the Cheltenham bumper at his ease was stunning. Tizzard always held the gelding in high regard and said after the horse had the race by 8l"If he was trained by Willie Mullins he'd have been third of fourth favourite."

Cue Card is by King’s Theatre (by Sadlers wells) who is a proven Group 1 sire under both rules and a leading sire in 2009/10 based on % wins to runs. His Dam’s sire is the successful National Hunt sire King’s Ride out of a mare by the hugely influential Deep Run. He was bought for £75,000 as a yearling and sold thereafter for £52,000 as 3yo.

His debut over hurdles, a 2m 4f class 3 novices race, was visually impressive, winning unextended by thirteen lengths he jumped well throughout, with the second and subsequently placed second next time out, the fourth, Nicene Creed won a decent novices hurdle also, franking the form. Still a young horse, the gelding is a sharp jumper even if somewhat diminutive in stature.

His last run, over 2m, was a step up in class to Grade 2 and Cue Card duly won impressively, beating Dunraven Storm by 8l. Throughout the race he jumped neatly and when the field started to sprint he jumped very fluently, showing he can hurdle well at speed also. Comparisons have been made to Dunguib, but without the questions marks over his jumping. Following his win at Cheltenham, he was cut to 5/2 favourite from 6/1 for the Supreme Novices' Hurdle and to 16/1 from 33/1 for the Champion Hurdle. He also received a lofty rating of 160 (last year’s Supreme Novices' winner Menorah is freshly rated 162).

His trainer Colin Tizzard began his career training point-to-point winners for his son to ride, dairy farmer Tizzard began with just 10 horses back in 1998 and now Cue Card, ridden on all four starts by Tizzard’s son Joe, is an exciting prospect and stable star.

Sky Sport’s correspondent Nic Doggett stated recently about Cue Card “On face value he might be the new Istabraq.” He is an exciting a novice since Rhinestone Cowboy and given time to develop, he could be exceptional. We are likely to see Cue Card take on Menorah and Silviniaco Conti at Cheltenham's International Hurdle in mid-December and the odds are very interesting. Blue Square go Menorah 13/8, Cue Card 9/4 and Silviniaco Conti 10/3.

This race should be a case of an early Christmas present for the Tizzard yard and a cue call onto greater things.