03/16/2012 1:45PM

Hovdey: Old-timers need to be treated with kid gloves

Barbara D. Livingston
Better Talk Now, trained by Graham Motion, raced against top-caliber turf runners until he was 10.

The good news is that Kauto Star will be celebrating his true 12th birthday on Monday none the worse for wear.

Given that, there is no bad news, unless there is reason to weep for those who took 3-1 on the blaze-faced national treasure Friday afternoon at England’s Cheltenham Festival, when Kauto Star was held second favorite to win the Gold Cup for a third time. In fact, he did not make the course, being pulled out of the steeplechase race by a sensible Ruby Walsh about halfway through the journey of 3 5/16 miles.

In the immediate wake of the race, the pedestal upon which Kauto Star lives in the hearts of British steeplechasing fans may have trembled slightly, but only from concern for his well-being. Certainly, there were those who were prepared to hold their breath for the entire Gold Cup – which takes better than six minutes to run – if that would help get the old boy around. At the age of 12 he was not supposed to be mixing it up at such a level, but tell that to Kauto Star and his loyal public, who watched him win the prestigious King George ‘Chase just last Dec. 26 for a record fifth time. Reports were soon issued that he was fine and would be enjoying his usual dinner.

Racehorses, like most people, are only as old as they feel, and most of them feel older than they are. Miles upon miles of training are piled on top of intense competitive encounters. Vacations are rare and usually accompanied by injury or illness. Careers of two years are common, four years the exception. And then there are those special few, heroic in terms not only of accomplishment, but sheer longevity as well.

The distant history of racing in America is dotted with dozens of aged warriors, holding their own well past age 6 and then some. Familiarity of fans breeds affection, especially when they perform at the top of the game, which is why special places have been reserved in recent times for the likes of Fourstardave, The Tin Man, With Anticipation, and Better Talk Now, to name an obvious few.

Their modern patron saint is John Henry, who won the Turf Classic at Belmont Park as a 9-year-old in September 1984, a month after he had taken his second Arlington Million. He was also by then a staple of “People” magazine and network news, essentially America’s most famous horse since Secretariat. Even so, he still had a regular job, so on Oct. 13, 1984, John Henry was asked to perform for the pleasure of the Meadowlands crowd in the Ballantine’s Scotch Classic.

But then it was somewhere during the first half of the 1 3/8-mile event that John Henry’s jockey, Chris McCarron, wondered, “Is this it? Game over?” John Henry had taken himself well off the pace that night and seemed to be merely going through the motions.

“It was baffling,” McCarron said later. “I could not figure out what he was doing.”

Up in the stands, Sam Rubin, John Henry’s owner, was rending his garments in shame for insisting on running in the race.

“I felt like a brute,” Rubin said later that year. “There was no question we were running a hurting horse. It was harrowing. I always live in fear of the day something will happen to him during a race.”

Would that every owner lived in such fear. As it turned out, John Henry might have been bored, or even bothered by the lights. By the time they hit the top of the stretch he was back in business for McCarron, who held on tight as the old boy kicked clear to win by more than three. It was his last race, though, as soft tissue injuries kept him out of the 1984 Breeders’ Cup and then cut short his comeback the following summer.

There are few things harder for a older, champion athlete than knowing when to leave the stage. The great older horses present their people with an even greater challenge, as described by Graham Motion, who trained the 2004 Breeders’ Cup Turf winner Better Talk Now through eight seasons.

“You know at some point they’re not going to be able to perform at the level they’re used to,” Motion said. “So as they get older, a little more fragile, and you’re even more attached to them, a feeling of even more responsibility comes with that. Certainly in the last few years with Better Talk Now it weighed heavily on me to make the decision that we were doing the right thing.”

Better Talk Now was 10 when he ran for the last time in August 2009, finishing second in the Sword Dancer at Saratoga. Two months later he was retired.

“Ultimately, when you enter a horse it’s your responsibility to be completely aware of their condition, because they can’t say ‘no,’” Motion said. “That weighs heavily on your mind all the time, but especially with an older horse like that.”

Or like Kauto Star, whose exploits Motion has followed as a native Englishman who cut his training teeth in the world of national hunt. As a young assistant to Jonathan Sheppard, Motion accompanied the American steeplechase champion Flatterer to Cheltenham for the 1987 Festival.

“He finished second in the Champion Hurdle,” Motion said. “And when he returned to be unsaddled, I’m not sure he didn’t get a reaction similar to the one they gave See You Then, who was winning it for the third year in a row.

“I can’t imagine having the responsibility of having a horse with the popularity of Kauto Star,” Motion added. “On Twitter today after the race, the trainer, Paul Nicholls, reported that the horse was okay. He also asked them to make the announcement to the crowd at Cheltenham. Part of that is the way we communicate now, but it just goes to show the responsibility of having a horse like that. We have to be their eyes and ears.”