10 February 2008

It’s  just what he does but the way he does it. On all known form Denman was a fair bit better than yesterday’s three rivals in Newbury’s Aon Chase. But he didn’t just beat them, he battered them into submission. Kauto Star, who makes his last pre-Cheltenham appearance at Ascot next Saturday, gives you brilliance. With Denman it is brutality.

The build-up to this year’s Gold Cup is beginning to surpass anything that has ever gone before and that, because I well remember it, includes the epic Mill House-Arkle showdown of 1964. For back then the two principals had already met in the Hennessy Gold Cup, where Mill House appeared to trounce Ireland’s new hero. Arkle’s supporters claimed he had slipped and it would be very different at Cheltenham. But British racegoers didn’t have this very public limbering up. And the two horses were not box-to-box stable companions.

So when Jess Allen and Dan Skelton led Denman into the warm spring sunshine of the Newbury paddock yesterday all eyes were hungry for a sight of him. Was he perhaps a bit burlier behind the girth than he had been before destroying the Hennessy field here back in November? Did the slight jig-jog he did turning the corners show his nerves were on edge? Did the couple of darker patches on his hard chestnut coat show the sweat was coming to a boil? They were nervous questions because we were nervous too.

But Denman’s nerves are not of the fearful kind. He is just a huge, muscular running and jumping machine who understands that the racecourse is where he should be ready to rumble. Seven unbeaten steeplechases in, he is not into jelly-like trembles. He walked out on to the track as proud as a king to his kingdom. Sam Thomas may be No 2 jockey to Ruby Walsh but he has the sort of angel face that doesn’t even sweat in the sauna. This might be billed as a Cheltenham warm-up, but he and Denman were here to work.

His three rivals may have been lesser rated but there were a lot more than just “Bum-of-the-Month” opponents. Between them they had won 28 races and over £630,000 in prize-money, and when Ollie Magern skipped along in front from the start it was easy to remember that it was only two starts ago at Wetherby in November that he had won the Charlie Hall Chase in just this fashion. Denman might be 1-4 in the betting but let’s see how he likes it being taken on up front.

The answer is that he likes it so well that it begs a question as to whether some stable companion might be pressed to do just such a service at Cheltenham. For with Ollie Magern pressing the gallop Denman could just chug along beside him and only had to turn up the power running to the final turn. Without a pacemaker in the Gold Cup he will have to do all the donkey work himself with Kauto Star and Walsh sitting ominously in his slipstream.

But that, as yesterday’s three rivals are only the latest to testify, is not at all a comfortable place to be. Even though Denman took a diving chance when he went ahead at the fifth fence from home, there was never a question from that moment on that those behind him were in for anything but a long hard slog home.

It is Denman’s power that resonates in the memory. The stride is not nearly as quick or silky as that of Kauto Star but it has a great, grinding relentless quality about it. Ollie Magern, Regal Heights and Celestial Gold are not bad horses, but as Denman came thundering into, up and over the last in front of us they didn’t seem to be racehorses at all.

The ability to destroy opponents is given to very few and the only reservation Denman fans should take from yesterday is that the performance had echoes of 45 years ago when the pre-Arkle Mill House ran everything ragged. But this story might have a different ending.

Most stables would find an Aon Chase victory enough for one afternoon, but for Paul Nicholls it was a fourth consecutive success on the card, following Cheltenham hopefuls Pasco, Ornais, and Master Minded, the last of which carried the Clive Smith “Kauto Star” colours to a hugely impressive win over last year’s Champion Chase winner Voy Por Ustedes.

Time was when “this is a nice horse who should run well” was the most you got from a leading trainer. But that was before the Paul Nicholls era. Yesterday’s column in the Racing Post led with the not exactly reticent statement “of all the horses in action this afternoon, the one that has got me most excited is Master Minded”. Punters who took note will have enjoyed a mighty galloping performance which will make his six-figure purchase price in France last summer almost “a steal.”

The Gary Moore stable has so far had to operate around the bargain area. But that will soon change if he continues the extraordinary versatility which produced Wingman and his jockey/son Jamie to win the Totesport Trophy as a follow-up to the pair’s success in the same race last year. Gary saddled 50 winners on the Flat last season, this was his 44th over jumps. He is just moving to new stables near Horsham. His older son Ryan rides for Sir Michael Stoute and is already champion jockey. We are trying to get Gary to write a book because we already have a title – “The Moore The Merrier.”

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