It was hardly believable at the time so it seems simply incredible today. There, down in Somerset, were the two best chasers in the world not just in the same yard but with their heads sticking out of adjoining boxes. We were blessed.
Kauto Star and Denman both ran at every Cheltenham Festival from 2006 to 2011 and ran against each other in four consecutive Gold Cups. Along the way they survived everything from heart trouble to somersaults to public adulation. Kauto Star had come from France. He would have said “Incroyable”.
It would have been nice if they could have talked because it would have added a final touch to the contrast between them. Kauto Star, tall and elegant, would have spoken with a quick, sophisticated Gallic nervousness. Denman, massive and powerful, would have a never lost the warm but rather rougher tones of his native County Cork. What conversations they must have had across the box door during the season and out in the field in the balmy days of summer.
They had come to Paul Nicholls championship winning yard by wonderfully contrasting routes. By the time Kauto Star arrived at Ditcheat in June 2004 he had already run eight times over obstacles in France and his most recent win at Auteuil had seen him hailed as one of the stars of his generation. At the same stage in Ireland Denman was no more than lot 501 at the Tattersalls “Derby” Sale who had to be withdrawn because his breathing failed the vet, an infirmity that needed corrective surgery before he even ran in a point to point.
The precocious Frenchman duly scooted up when he first appeared over English fences at Newbury in December. I recall an impression of athleticism and class and a very real buzz amongst the trainer’s entourage. A month later at Exeter there was an even bigger buzz but it was almost over before it had really begun. Kauto Star fell when clear at the second last and Ruby Walsh remounted so quickly that he only failed by a short head to win anyway. Hurrahs for the heroics, but groans for the aftermath. Kauto Star had broken a small bone in his leg. We might never have heard of him again. Mind you at that stage we had never heard of Denman at all. Next season we would.
What a rumbling there was in that autumn of 2005. Kauto Star did not just get his career back on track, he won the Tingle Creek so impressively that he would start hot favourite for the Two Mile Champion Chase at Cheltenham next spring. Denman emerged out of the rumour mill and a point to point win for Adrian Maguire in Ireland to start odds on and collect only adequately under Christian Williams at Wincanton. He did the same thing on the same course and with the same rider three weeks later. It was the last race of the day and he wasn’t even favourite. There was talk that he was awkward and hard to steer. Maybe he was but he won this and his next two races by a total of over 50 lengths and would start at 11/10 for the Sun Alliance Hurdle which opens the second day of the Cheltenham Festival.
Kauto Star was due to run in the Champion Chase two races later but this first afternoon together on the greatest stage of all was not to be a happy one for either horse, and was close to a nightmare afternoon for their rider Ruby Walsh. He was outspeeded on Denman in the first race, unseated in the second, took a dreadful fall from Kauto Star in the third, slipped badly but ran on to be fourth in the next and was finally way out of the numbers on the favourite in the last. A year on, things would be looking up.
By then both horses had beaten everything put in against them. Kauto Star won five including the extraordinarily versatile feat of taking the two mile Tingle Creek Chase in between triumphs over three miles in the Betfred at Haydock and the King George at Kempton. He would start at 5/4 in the Gold Cup. Denman went from strength to strength in four novice chases and was odds on for the Sun Alliance. At Cheltenham Kauto Star was impressive but Denman was awesome. The next season would be collision course.
That first showdown came on the 14 March 2008 and by then no scriptwriter could have teed it up better. Kauto Star would start odds on as reigning champion, winner again of the Betfred and the King George and staggeringly brilliant at Ascot in February with a propensity to last fence lapses his only liability. Denman had won all of his three races and his opening effort in taking the Hennessy Gold Cup field apart was something to behold. At Cheltenham he did the same thing to Kauto Star. It was like Joe Frazier attacking Muhammed Ali all those years ago. Only for the horses to have not two rematches but three.
First time in the Gold Cup Denman was such a monster that you felt, just as with Frazier/Ali, that the champion would be humbled and blown away. When Sam Thomas launched Denman into the attack on that second circuit he took Kauto Star right out of his comfort zone. Ruby Walsh conceals the ammunition under him better than any other rider but when Denman launched clear down the final hill his whip and the game were clearly up. Ahead was a beating but in defeat we discovered something we might not have known about our favourite Frenchman. He was as tough as he was talented.
For as they ran to the last fence Denman was nearly in the next parish and Kauto Star he was not even going to beat his grey stable mate Neptune Collonges. But standing by the rails on the run in you could see Kauto Star set his head down and despite everything there was still a last despairing bite in his weary forelegs. You should always look at the forelegs, and up front Denman was weary too. He had won magnificently but there was little punch left as his hooves hit the turf. At the post he did not have 70 lengths over Kauto Star but just seven. It took its toll.
The news of his heart problems came late in the summer. For us fans there was something destabilizing about it. Denman’s massive chestnut shape was the very symbol of big heartedness. Now we had veterinary bulletins not thoughts of a rematch, and we had to be content with Kauto Star’s continuing sense of drama, ditching substitute Sam Thomas at the last fence in the Betfred and then trying unsuccessfully to do the same thing to Ruby Walsh in the King George. A rematch looked even less likely when Denman got well beaten on his comeback in February. Yet it happened. It was nearly Denman’s finest hour.
The same honours should be accorded trainer Nicholls. For while we faint hearts counselled caution he believed what his own skills told him. He not only ran Denman to be second in the Gold Cup but three other horse and took both fourth place and fifth. Kauto Star was too good and too fast for everything else on the day. Denman was understandably ridden with less aggression than in his pre-fibrillation festivals but even though Kauto had skipped clear the massive chestnut coursed on after him like a big and hungry wolfhound. The thought of a decider twelve months later seemed too much to hope for. The wonder, and the Paul Nicholls masterpiece, was that it wasn’t .
As before the two champions got there by contrasting routes but that only fuelled the hype. Kauto Star beat the upstart Imperial Commander by just a pixel in the Betfred but followed it with a King George so dazzling that it was officially assessed as the best performance of his whole career. Denman only ran twice and his second run saw an unhappy start for a new rider when he clouted the third last and dumped Tony McCoy. But both horses made it to Cheltenham and with it a “Duel of Champions” publicity drive quite unprecedented in the racing game. You didn’t have to be a total pessimist to wonder if hostages were not being offered up to fortune. They were.
It is important to remember these moments not in hindsight but with the mood of the time. Kauto Star’s 193 rated King George victory saw him start at 11/8 for this 2010 Gold Cup with Denman at 4-1 and Imperial Commander back in at 7s. The favourite’s backers would not hear of defeat. The publicity had billed him as the stylish speedster with Denman’s fans adoringly adopting “The Tank” nickname given by flamboyant part owner Harry Findlay. In fact at 16.2 and 525 kilos Kauto was a fine big steeplechaser albeit not quite a physical match for the 17 hands and 550 kilos of “The Tank.” Can the star Australian sprint mare Caviar really have drawn 580 kilos on the weighbridge?
So in the race it took a while to appreciate what was happening. To understand that as McCoy attacked on Denman, Walsh was not actually coasting with the ease of the champion’s glory days. At his best Kauto Star had a remarkable effortless, way of jumping with hardly any heave of his quarters. It was as if he was doing it off his toes. But when he got to the the eighth fence in 2010, the spring was seriously missing. Kauto Star galloped slap into it. On the big screen TV viewers only got a glimpse, but it was enough to send a collective gasp amongst the massed ranks in the stands. Only Ruby Walsh’s prehensile agility kept the partnership intact. The champion had suffered the equivalent of a knockdown and for a few rounds, his rider would have to nurse him through. It would be guts not spring heels that were needed now.
Coming past us you could only guess how deep was his trouble but down the back straight Walsh drew his whip and the whole world knew. Ruby is just about the most subtle and skilful rider to ever face a fence but he knows that there are times when steeplechasing is a bareknuckle game. If Kauto Star were to stay in this Gold Cup he had to hang on to Denman and Imperial Commander and see if some of the punches would roll his way. At the top of the hill he was struggling but he was still locked in the battle. The next fence comes quite soon after you swing off the top turn. Too soon for Kauto Star. Under the strain he reverted to his old “put his foot in it” ways. The first things that hit the ground were his neck and then his tail.
The mind was torn between twin emotions. Up front Denman was unavailing but tremendous as he put it to the young pretender, but back on the hill your eyes searched for visual confirmation of the commentator’s call that Kauto Star was on his feet. Over the last and Denman and McCoy were still implacable but Imperial Commander and Brennan were making sure it was in defeat. Down on the ground we knew it was the changing of the guard but prayed not a change too far. Clare Balding came up asking anxiously for news on her earpiece. I remember fronting Channel 4 when Desert Orchid took his last fall at Kempton. Funeral announcements aren’t any fun.
How amazing to think that twelve months later we were standing in the same place and watching what boxing promoters would bill as “Kauto – Denman Four”. By then both horses were battle hardened eleven year olds and their road to the Festival had been short but tough. Kauto Star had won in Ireland but been trounced by the five years younger Long Run in the King George. Denman had been a heroic failure conceding two stone in the Hennessy but it had been his only run. At Cheltenham Long Run was 7-2 favourite with Kauto Star at 5-1 and Denman at 7s. The young tyro had it, but the old wonders made him realise how deep you have to dig.
In our hearts we knew it would be the last time and as a memory it could hardly have been bettered even in defeat. For, as old champions do, Kauto Star and Denman tried new tactics to see if they could expose flaws in their younger foe. Denman with a reunited Sam Thomas took his time in the early encounters but Walsh upped Kauto to head the pack on the second circuit and his old stable mate followed suit. Down the hill they came together and a yearning thrill came from the cheering stands.
Long Run joined them as they swung the final turn and came to jump the second last all three together. Denman led, Kauto weakened but Long Run looked the strongest. At the last he just had it but Denman made him work all the way to the line. Youth had its day but age was going out in glory. Sam Waley Cohen circled Long Run at the end of the straight to do his interviews and Denman and Kauto Star came back down the horse walk as they had so many times before.
So that would be the end of it. Denman ran once more, Kauto Star just four times. Looking back I like to recall a moment from their first momentous meeting in 2008. Some half an hour after the Gold Cup they were circling one behind the other next to the dope test area and a sudden ripple of spontaneous applause broke out from the gaggle of spectators gathered along the rail. The sun was coming through and it was easy to remember the lines of PG Wodehouse about another gilded place. “Being there,” he wrote, “was like being in heaven without going to all the bother and expense of dying.” Only now that they are gone can we realise how much we miss them. We will miss them more and more.