We need to treasure him. We can’t protect Denman, the steeplechasing game is too hard for that, but we have to realise how lucky we are to have a horse that can do something as extraordinary as he did when winning the Hennessy with top weight yesterday one year after being half dead with a heart condition.
The crowd do. They cheered when the commentator called his name and that was with a mile to run and four fences still to jump. That’s the beauty of these big three mile chases, we don’t just know the participants, we care about them. When he returned in February there was a wary listlessness about his demeanour and gallantly though he ran to be second to Kauto Star in the Gold Cup, the last time we saw him in action was taking a thumper of a fall at Aintree two days before the National. With such a history there is always a tension amongst the optimism as trainer Paul Nicholls patted his rump and sent him into public view in the paddock.
We were those of little faith. From the outset Walsh had the big horse rolling away up with the leaders. Coming past at the water jump he was upsides the outsiders Niche Market and Joe Lively towing a whole bunch of likely contenders in his wake. All the way down the back straight he continued to thunder on from fence to fence at a tempo that meant by the time they swept back toward the straight only Irish National winner Niche Market, The Queen’s Barbers Shop and Sir Alec Ferguson’s What A Friend were close enough to threaten. You get stellar casts in the Hennessy.
And a performance from both the heavens and from the very depths of effort. Jumping to Denman is a huge, muscular throw of his mighty frame not a soaring athletic skip like Kauto Star. But down the Newbury straight, foot perfect he came. Niche Market could not go fast enough, Barbers Shop ran out of stamina and at the second last only Denman’s stablemate What A Friend was a danger. Indeed Sir Alec’s nose-banded hope seemed to be going the better but when it came to resolution was no match for the powerhouse inside him. If What A Friend was a footballer his manager would have a word with him
For up the run Ruby Walsh heaved and Denman dug. 100 yards out he rolled across to the right so much that the jockey’s first reaction afterwards was to cup his own hands around his eyes and joke “the horse is crying out for blinkers.” But then you saw Denman’s hind quarters dip as the tiredness hit him. Never doubt how much of a toll are taken by 21 fences and 6 minutes 40 seconds of relentless galloping.
It has been 22 years since Paul Nicholls won the second of his 2 Hennessys as a jockey somehow weighing as light as 10 stone 5 lbs but nothing in a life so vividly chronicled in his current autobiography “Lucky Break”, not even his 4 trainers championships and two wins in both the Cheltenham Gold Cup and yesterday’s race has surpassed the performance of triumphing with an equine runner as talented but as physically challenged as Denman was a year ago.
The expectant cheers on the final turn came in on the flood as Denman was led into the winners circle. As the well wishers crowded Nicholls himself highlighted the need for a re-think about unsaddling procedure. No human athlete in extremis would ever be made to stand still for more than a few seconds. Soon Denman was being led round, great gulps of air still being sucked down those chestnut nostrils. His story is a vivid one with a great jockey, a unique trainer and a superb odd couple pair of owners in Nicholls original farmer patron Paul Barber and colourful heavyweight gambler Harry Findlay. But at heart it is all about a treasure that is a horse called Denman. The second re-match in the Gold Cup at Cheltenham next March is one to dream about – may the fates protect them.