16 March 2008

There was beauty in the brutal simplicity of it all. Denman’s whole life had led to this. He would set off to attack round Cheltenham’s great anvil of dreams and gallop and jump until the best horse in the world was battered into submission behind him. It was what he had been bred and trained and raced for. It would be two circuits, 22 fences and 6mins 47secs of fulfilment on the hoof.

To be exact, the big attack did not come until they started the second circuit. Until then Denman had been tracking the grey Neptune Collonges whilst Kauto Star kept station along the inside about four lengths away. Until then you could not spot a chink in the defending champion. Some of us thought he looked a touch tight, his skin dull in the paddock, but maybe that was more our nerves than his. Then, just as Sam Thomas decided to play Denman from the front, Ruby Walsh had a problem. At the 11th fence, the second-last on the final circuit, Kauto galloped in and clouted it.

This happens. But you don’t want it to happen too often. They came thundering towards us at the 12th, the final fence in this Gold Cup next time. When he had approached it for the first time, the second jump of the race, Kauto Star had put in such a huge spring-heeled leap that he landed almost too steeply. This time he didn’t. Kauto galloped in again and clouted it. It wasn’t dangerous, like it used to be a year ago. But he had missed it. Walsh has a poker player’s stillness about him, but he now knew his hand wasn’t perfect.

Not that he betrayed anything down the back stretch. Denman was piling it on up ahead of Neptune Collonges, the lesser horses were already being driven. But Kauto was neat enough. It didn’t matter that he was still five lengths adrift at the 17th, the last open ditch. But it did at the 18th at the top of the hill, for he galloped in and clouted hard again. Denman was launching off down the hill and Walsh had the stick up. Kauto was in trouble.

There was no mistaking it. The champion had taken the equivalent of a knock-down. He was on his feet but the contender was pummelling him. Kauto got good jumps at the 19th and 20th but he couldn’t even take Neptune Collonges. There was a roar from the crowd as Denman’s name was called, but also a strange muted feel. For Kauto this was not going to be just defeat, but humiliation. Yet he had not become a 15-victory, six-season champion without being a battler.

The game looked up as Thomas thundered round the last turn for those final two fences with an ever-widening gap behind him. But Walsh dug deep as he drove Kauto up the inside to that penultimate fence and the horse’s long white blaze came up with a mighty leap to finally take second. As Denman came towards us, the roll of his forelegs showed the strain was biting. If he was to blunder and Kauto could get another big jump there was just a chance of the equivalent of a last-round knock-out.

But Denman kept his rhythm. He landed weary but running. Kauto drove in but clouted, and as he came away from the fence he staggered slightly sideways. You should always look at the forelegs. Denman’s were no longer moving easily but at least they were rolling. Kauto’s had lost their bite. It was over.

Afterwards the mind was in a muddle. Denman was the new champion. Thomas well deserved his arm-punching elation. The ownership ‘odd couple’ of Paul Barber and Harry Findlay had their belief fully vindicated and Paul Nicholls’ achievement of training the first three home recalled the 1983 Famous Five of Michael Dickinson. Yet this had not been Arkle/Mill House after all. That cold clear day in 1964, both sets of supporters could still believe as they swung for home and then Arkle changed it all. Here the champion had been in trouble too early. We can’t be really sure until the re-match.

With this bizarre, stable-companions, all-good-friends, no-edge rivalry, there was no chance of one of those wound-licking ‘I will follow him to the end of the earth and then I will beat him’ declarations which Jimmy Connors would say after another defeat by Bjorn Borg. But it seemed important to walk back to the wash-down with the loser.

Sonja Warburton has been Kauto Star’s closest companion. “The most important thing is that they are all home safely,” she said patting her horse’s sweat-soaked neck. “But I think the ground was a bit sticky for him. For me he is still a champion.”

The small knot of fans broke into spontaneous, sympathetic applause as she led Kauto out into the ring after his wash-over. They did the same in more cheery mode when lofty, grey-suited young Harry Fry came up with Denman. Away in the paddock you could hear the loudspeaker calling Jess Allen to the podium as groom to the winner. The two horses circled together with the familiarity of the stablemates they are. Kauto Star still tall and grand, Denman even bigger, but that low chestnut neck making him look slightly less than the 17 hands that he is.

Eventually Allen came up to join us. She will become a mother in the summer. “I could feel the baby kicking on the run-in,” she said. But even that wide-eyed wonder could not stem thoughts of her four-legged hero.

“Yesterday morning,” she said, “I put my hand on the bottom of his neck and for the first time ever it was just one slab of muscle. Paul asked me how he was. I said he had never been fitter.”

The two horses were led off to share a box home to Somerset. They don’t look as if they argue but we have to hope the debate is not over. Seven lengths was the verdict. It was decisive but not necessarily final. Next March, let’s trust that it’s not only the daffodils that are blooming.

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