– Jack Harrison contributed to this report.
It is one of the oldest talking points in the grand history of sport: what makes a true “great?”
There are those aspiring mathematicians among us who would look to the pure facts and figures; how many grand slams has a tennis player won? How many centuries has a cricketer compiled? How many times has a footballer found the net?
Is sport not more than that though? What if this phenomenon is simply theatre? A place where we can go (or be taken by a plethora of multimedia devices) and experience drama and entertainment, agony and ecstasy.
So when two sporting heroes encapsulate all of this in two stellar careers, how do we begin to separate them?
It is this very debate that has put horse racing front and centre of the national press in recent weeks, with the retirement of arguably the two greatest animals in the history of the sport of kings; Frankel, the flat-racing sensation, and Kauto Star, the legend of the jumps.
Flat and jump racing are two very different entities, and both horses have illuminated their respective disciplines in very different ways. Maybe their legacies should just stand alone to be admired, but, then again, trying somehow or another to figure out just who is the best… well that’s the fun part, isn’t it?
Before his final race, Frankel was a long way ahead of the rest of the current field. Rated by the racing number crunchers at 140, he was ten pounds clear of nearest rival, Cirrus Des Aigles.
Then came Frankel’s final run at Ascot in the Champions Stakes. Not only did this imperious colt make it 14 career wins out of 14 career starts, but he took his aggregate winning distance to more than 76 lengths and his total career prize money to just under the £3m mark.
Add to that the £125,000 stud fee that he is expected to command and a total value of £100 million and it is difficult to argue with the numbers.
However, despite his breathtaking career stats, Frankel is still not officially rated as the best flat racing has ever seen. That honour lies with star of the 1980s, Dancing Brave.
Then, of course, there is that legion of fans and experts who will maintain that statistics are simply not enough. Frankel dominated in his realm, but that realm only ever included races between seven and ten furlongs and never outside of England.
Trainer, Henry Cecil opted against moving Frankel up to the 12 furlongs of the more iconic Epsom Derby or the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, with fears that his blistering pace would not be able to stay the distance.
Cue Kauto Star. Just looking at the maths, Frankel clearly has the edge. Kauto won just over half of his races, 23 victories from 41 starts and, despite a much longer career, amassed less prize money; £2.4m.
It isn’t how much Kauto Star won though (as impressive as his career may have been), but instead what he won and how he did it.
The Paul Nicholls trained steeplechaser made history by winning the King George VI Chase for a fifth time on Boxing Day 2011, and is the only horse to have regained the Cheltenham Gold Cup having lost it.
It is here that Kauto imbedded himself in the imagination of the sporting public; consistently bouncing back from adversity to win in the high profile races. This was typified in 2011 when he was pulled up at Punchestown and looked set for retirement, but, after a summer’s rest, Kauto Star triumphantly returned at Haydock before his win in the King George.
And perhaps, rather than entries in the record books, it is one “moment” that separates Kauto Star from the rest. In the 2012 Gold Cup, going for victory number three, he was pulled up at around the half way mark. As he made his way off the course, the capacity Cheltenham crowd momentarily forgot about the premier event in the jump racing calendar and rewarded their hero with a standing ovation.
Comparing and choosing between these two great equine sporting stars is a near impossibility. Although they represent a similar era of racing, Frankel being a sprinter and Kauto Star a steeplechaser means they never went head to head on the turf. They were never rated by the same criteria and they had very different expectations in equally storied careers.
However, while I may have my opinion like so many others, here is the big secret: none of us really want there to be answer to the question of “who is best?”
We sporting aficionados don’t want to live in a world where we can’t waste hour upon hour arguing about whether it is Frankel or Kauto Star? Michael Schumacher or Aryton Senna? Stephen Hendry or Ronnie O’Sullivan? Pele or Lionel Messi? Seve Ballesteros or Tiger Woods? After all, if we did, what on earth would people like me write about?
Racing has a big job on its hands in replacing two legends of the game; but for now, anyone involved in this often maligned sport should just thank their lucky stars that they have been blessed to witness two of the greatest we will ever see.Tweet