It was never meant to be easy. Denman had seemed set for a simple sparring round but ended with the Newbury fences getting the better of him and new partner Tony McCoy sprawled on the canvas. The Gold Cup showdown with Kauto Star now has a big doubt about it.
The debacle shocked the packed grandstands into a gasping hush followed by a “what happened” buzz which continued until all the horses, including a mercifully uninjured Denman, had returned to the unsaddling enlosure. One moment the crowd had been cheering happily as Denman led his five rivals into the final straight, the next they were groaning as the massive chestnut smashed so heavily into the fourth last fence that McCoy was almost overboard on the left. And worse was to follow.
For a horse of Denman’s power and Gold Cup winning calibre such a mistake would normally be little more than a check. But yesterday it seemed to scupper him completely and from being three lengths clear he was more than three lengths adrift of the plodder Niche Market when he made such a wholesale miss of the next fence that the normally prehensile McCoy was ignominiously fired into the turf.
Some armchair riders will probably start questioning McCoy’s suitability to Denman’s saddle but it is more than the former jockeys’ union which makes me rubbish such suggestions. Thanks to a generous lift in the pursuing veterinary car I had a close eye view of the partnership from the moment Denman trotted ears-pricked towards the start until the final straight demise, and for 14 fences the tune had been a happy one.
True the McCoy’s three push crescendo into a jump is a different style to the quieter, more wrapped round Ruby Walsh system but at fence after fence horse and rider soared in and over in unison. As they swept off towards the second circuit the pair seemed a perfect match. But it was just at that moment that another, more relevant doubt appeared. McCoy’s wrists moved.
Perhaps the now ten year old Denman is getting a touch lazy nowadays, Ruby Walsh had said “he needs blinkers” immediately after the Hennessy win in December, but those McCoy wrists were not a perfect sign. Alerted by this, Denman’s aura began to wilt. He was going well enough but he was not putting these lesser rivals to the sword. As they swung towards the straight the mind made a mental note that a horse like Niche Market, gutsy winner of last year’s Irish Grand National, should not really be within four lengths of a “wonderhorse” even in a sparring match.
Significantly that was also McCoy’s comment when he spoke after putting the Denman disappointment behind him by bringing Get Me Out Of Here triumphantly through in the featured Totesport Trophy half an hour later. “I had been going and jumping well enough,” he said, “but when I looked behind on the last turn I was disappointed to see Niche Market still so close. I thought Denman would pick up and attack the next but he belted it and we were in trouble. I am disappointed, disappointed for everyone.”
Denman has become such a public horse that the shattering of yesterday’s expectations at first seemed to have the ring of doom about it. But, not for the first time, trainer Paul Nicholls came fighting back with reasons for keeping heart. “This doesn’t change anything about Cheltenham,” he said. “I warned everyone beforehand that the horse was not as fit as he could be. The target is in five weeks time and I believe we will be there.”
The truth is that not even Nicholls can be sure and bookmakers have his horse out to as far as 3-1 in the duel with Kauto Star at Cheltenham. By all accounts Denman’s huge frame is taking more and more work to get it to peak fitness and Nicholls has become a master of timing his athlete’s programme to be right on the day. We watchers want stars to win every time but warm up races inevitably don’t have top horses cooked to a turn..
That certainly looked true of much heralded novice Long Run who made several mistakes before drawing clear at Warwick and while Denman’s stable mate Master Minded looked back to his awesome best for much of the Game Spirit Chase at Newbury he and Ruby Walsh had a quite horrendous misunderstanding at the last fence. It was so complete an error that Walsh was at one moment standing in midair high above his mount just willing for the saddle to be there when gravity grabbed him.
It did. The partnership held. It’s like that when your luck is in. For it had been Ruby on the Nicholls Grand National hope Tricky Trickster who had got up to win Denman’s race in a photo finish and he and Nicholls shared 4 winners in the afternoon. McCoy will be hoping the fates are friendlier at Cheltenham.