THEY were the Nicholls Nobility who ruled the chasing world for eight years. Kauto Star, Denman, Master Minded and Neptune Collonges raised the profile of NH racing through their brilliance, much the same way as Arkle, Red Rum, Desert Orchid and Best Mate had done in days gone by.
Now with the retirement of Kauto Star this glorious era has ended. Denman was pensioned off in December and Master Minded's career was terminated by injury during the King George VI Chase later that same month while time was called on Neptune Collonges after his epic Grand National triumph in April.
All four horses are millionaires in their own right for prize-money but what places Kauto Star above his stablemates at the Ditcheat yard of Paul Nicholls is his versatility.
During the 2006-07 campaign he was the first chaser to be officially top-rated at two miles, two and a half miles and three miles at the same time.
That unique treble stemmed from a Grade Two win over 20 furlongs in the Old Roan Chase at Aintree by 21 lengths in the October, a second Tingle Creek victory in Sandown Park's two-miler during December followed by the first of five King George triumphs over three miles at Christmas.
This bright bay with the striking blaze commanded public adulation with football-type scarves seen at racecourses for the first time in the green, yellow and purple colours of owner Clive Smith.
Of his 19 chase victories, 16 were at Grade One level and his prize-money over fences reached a record £2,233,000 for a NH competitor – let alone the additional seven-figure bonus he earned from winning the Betfair Million by taking Haydock's Betfair Chase, the King George and the first of his two Cheltenham Gold Cups in 2007.
He is immortalised in Gold Cup folklore as being the only horse to regain racing's number one race after losing it, that memorable day coming in 2009 when avenging his defeat by Denman the previous season.
Such ability was bound to draw comparisons with Arkle and certainly he is the best we have seen since Himself.
As a hurdler in his early days in France he was trained by Serge Foucher near Paris who to this day not only rates him as the best horse he has handled but also rues selling him to Clive Smith though at £285,000 it was anticipated that this was an animal with the highest potential.
And so it transpired. Kauto Star was an instant success under the meticulous Nicholls guidance winning his first English chase at Newbury in December, 2004, by nine lengths.
The first chapter had been written in a fabulous career which had so many highlights. Nicholls always knew he was something extra special but the trainer and head lad Clifford Baker deserve enormous credit for the way they handled the horse's career keeping him fresh and enthusiastic for the job that he clearly loved over eight British campaigns.
Even last season in the veteran stage Kauto Star proved himself out of the ordinary. Following below-par performances in the spring of 2011 it seemed the march of time had consumed him and that any further races would simply be a case of paying homage to a horse now on the downward spiral.
How wrong we were when he set the pace and ran Long Run into oblivion to land a fourth Betfair Chase in November – and five weeks later repeated the dose to outgun the young pretender for a record-breaking fifth King George days before he turned 12 years old.
Though Nicholls said in his autobiography we should never get too emotionally involved with our horses there were plenty of hardened racegoers who were dewy-eyed when Kauto Star strode up the Kempton Park run-in under an elated Ruby Walsh last December.
How much that schooling fall took its toll on his early Gold Cup exit in March we shall never know but it was clear on that day that his owner thought the curtain should be brought down on an epic career while he was still in one piece.
There was no immediate announcement but Nicholls, Smith and the Ditcheat team spoke as one voice when the inevitable news was broken last Wednesday afternoon leaving jump enthusiasts with enduring memories of an equine legend whose talents thrilled us all.
By David Briers