2 December 2007

He came past where the great ones have been: Burrough Hill Lad, Mill House and, yes, Arkle too. That’s the company Denman is heading for if he continues to destroy fields in the way he took the Hennessy Cognac Gold Cup field apart at Newbury. And, best of all, we are set to watch him clash with stablemate Kauto Star at Cheltenham.

Denman had been given top weight of 11st 12lb in conditions so heavy that many horses were having trouble even jumping at all. But 13st would not have stopped Denman yesterday as he powered to the front after six fences and just kept rolling on. By the winning post the routed cavalry were headed by Dream Alliance and Character Building, who were receiving 19 and 26lbs respectively.

It was a magnificent performance by a horse who has developed into a quite awesome physical specimen. Denman measures well over 17 hands (5 ft 8 in) at the shoulder and pulls over 550 kilos on the weighbridge. Trainer Paul Nicholls had warned the world that his horse was still some eight kilos over the weight at which he won the Sun Alliance at Cheltenham in March, the last time we saw him on a racecourse. When they took the paddock sheet off him there was indeed a touch more muscle behind the girth – but it was hard enough to hurt your hand.

Sam Thomas was once again in the saddle only seven days after his much trumpeted triumph on Kauto Star at Haydock. He has so quickly established himself as a super substitute for the injured Ruby Walsh that his presence is already taken for granted. He was cool before the race, and a lot calmer than some of his supporters when Denman tanked his way alongside the leader Sir Rembrandt as the field swung into the straight for the first time.

“He had settled well,” Thomas said afterwards, “much better than I thought he might first time out. But they were not going any great gallop and I wanted to allow him to get into his rhythm. His jumping was wonderful. I didn’t think things could get much better after last week but this horse is something else. When I looked round with two fences left I couldn’t believe how strung out they were behind me.”

Down on the ground, nervous observers had wondered if the big horse’s lack of a “prep” race might now find him out. At the second last Denman threw in a soaring answer and came thundering in, up, and over the final fence without any check in his momentum. A week before we had been close up as Kauto Star had to dig deep in similar conditions at Haydock. Here now was a challenge from the horse who stands in the very next box at Nicholls’ Ditcheat stables.

The prospect of the two of them meeting for the shoot- out at Cheltenham in March is one that should draw not just the jumping fan but anyone with a pulse for the sporting encounter. Strictly on the ratings Denman still has four or five pounds to find on his stable companion but few observers think there is much between them.

Ladbrokes bet 2-1 the pair, Coral’s actually have Denman at 6-4 to Kauto’s 7-4 but the real beauty is that we are having the argument at all. For there has not been a situation where two stablemates were vying for the crown since Arkle and Flyingbolt stood in adjoining boxes at Tom Dreaper’s stables in the early Sixties. And those two horses were never set to meet, Arkle being Gold Cup bound, Flyingbolt the two-mile champion.

The rivalry will be intense but it will always be genial since Denman is owned by “Heart-on-sleeve” punter Harry Findlay and Nicholls’ landlord Paul Barber, who received a text from Kauto Star’s owner Clive Smith congratulating him and looking forward to Cheltenham.

As the countdown begins all of us will relish the contrast between the men and even more between the horses – Kauto Star the elegant French-bred bay swift enough to win the Tingle Creek at Sandown, and Denman the massive chestnut Irish powerhouse for whom even more improvement is likely.

It had been a black and angry sky that Denman was galloping towards and by the time he was walking back into the unsaddling enclosure the heavens had opened on what looked like a very weary horse. But within minutes the strut was back and it was hard to keep alongside him as he was led away. It was a very damp, dark and private world but one lit up by the smile on the face of 26-year-old Jess Allen, the girl who rides Denman every morning.

“Everyone was asking how fit he was,” she said, her eyes still wide with the excitement, “and I said you just won’t believe how much work this horse has done. He even went up our steep gallop after his schooling on Thursday. We knew we had him fit but the incredible thing is that we know he will be much fitter after this.”

The rain which had run welcomely cool down Denman’s back now plastered Jess’s red hair flat to her face. But all of racing will treasure her closing words – “the best is definitely yet to come.”

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