9 March 2008

Kauto Star/Denman, it’s the Race of the Century, but is it as important as the Race of Last Century? Well it’s certainly bigger. It’s the most anticipated, most promoted, and most accessible match-up in my lifetime. And that’s from someone old enough to have been riding at Cheltenham two races after the Arkle/Mill House epic in 1964. But while it’s altering the face of a sport, what happened 44 years ago changed the morale of a nation. It was Arkle for the Irish.

There is no contest in the publicity stakes. Never before have two horses, and everything to do with their connections, been so happily paraded for our amusement, so openly quoted for our delight. People promoting other sports are reeling from shock and envy. What’s happened to the “don’t-quote-me” reserve which has remained a racing commonplace and would have made the present fanfares unthinkable four years ago, not just in 1964?

Paul Nicholls has had every media outlet short of Al Jazeera down to where he trains both horses in Somerset. Whole forests have had to be felled to provide paper enough for coverage of Ruby Walsh, Sam Thomas, Clifford Baker and the rest of the team and only this week we have had ‘Meet the Owners’ at Sandown on Friday and ‘Meet The Wives’ in the Racing Post on Wednesday – and that was just about the consorts of Denman’s joint-owner.

But the oddest, and in some ways most remarkable thing, about the whole Kauto Star/Denman confrontation, is that it is a rivalry without edge. In the 18 months and seven unbeaten races while Denman emerged to challenge for Kauto Star’s Gold Cup crown, you would think that we would get some sort of racing equivalent to the Wenger acid or the Ferguson challenge. Not a chance; the horses live in adjoining boxes, the owners have become good friends; even the girls in the Nicholls yard didn’t want to take sides when asked to choose rosettes for publicity shots this week. It was not like that in 1964.

There was no nastiness but there was an edge all right. For this was England, in the shape of massive, spring-heeled, ruling champion Mill House, against Ireland’s Arkle, hailed as their greatest hope in decades. And, much more important, unlike this Friday, when Kauto Star and Denman will finally meet on the racetrack, the 1964 Gold Cup was a re-match.

Arkle had had his crack at Mill House in the Hennessy Gold Cup the previous November and ‘The Big Horse’ had given him 5lb and beaten him nine long lengths into third. Sure, Arkle had subsequently won brilliantly again back home and sure, some said that he had slipped badly, unseen by either TV cameras or fog-blocked racegoers, on landing at the third last. But this was pre Celtic Tiger Ireland hopelessly yearning for greatness. They would say that wouldn’t they?

It’s impossible to exaggerate how convinced of Mill House we were in March ’64. His performance in the previous year’s Gold Cup was such that we thought he would win it for years to come. He was big, massive and almost black with a white star on his forehead; more heavy-topped than Denman but with a sailing lift to his leap that made him a more spectacular, even more impressive jumper than either of this week’s contenders. We were certain that he would set a rhythm that would break Arkle on the wheel.

The Irish claimed that Arkle was a freak and he had certainly looked quite exceptional in his two novice chase victories at Cheltenham the previous season. He was not nearly as elegantly put together as Kauto Star, or as power-packed as Denman. He was a rather angular bay with his neck put on a little upright like a deer. But he had a presence about him, and a terrific almost greyhound overlap of a stride. Pat Taaffe could hardly hold him.

Study the video of that Gold Cup and the overriding impression is of Arkle almost running away most of the time. He was still pulling so hard coming down the hill the last time that Taaffe nearly fell off the back when he gave the fence a clout. At the time we didn’t really notice it. We were happy with the soaring leaps that Willie Robinson was getting from Mill House. Looking down from the stands it was only on the final turn that I realised what was happening. That Arkle was indeed a different species. That nothing in jump racing would ever be the same again.

This year much of the pattern is likely to be the same, except that Walsh doesn’t have the brake problems Taaffe did. Thomas will rack up the gallop on Denman and hope that he has blunted the speed of his rival whose precocious talent dubbed him “L’Extra Terrestrial” in his native France. Denman is no slouch and his sprint finish over the last two fences at Leopardstown was in its own way as impressive as his Hennessy blitz. But he would never win a Tingle Creek as Kauto Star did last season.

So with last season’s jumping crossed-wires behind him, Kauto Star can only, logically, be beaten, if his speed can’t hold up at the end of three and a quarter miles of a Denman gallop. A year ago I might have bought this, Kauto Star’s career was still a bit drama-packed for safety. But this time I have stood at the last to see him slug home in dreadful ground at Haydock and look more impressive than he ever has when winning at Kempton. Denman will have to be Arkle to beat him.

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