30 December 2007

Amid all the contests and matches that will entertain us throughout the year, there is usually one defining moment: Our writers consider the clashes which deserve special attention


Kauto Star versus Denman in the Cheltenham Gold Cup – it’s the race we have all been waiting for. If they both make it to the starting tape on March 14,, there will have been nothing like it in over 40 years.

Arkle versus Mill House in 1964 is always accepted as the ultimate Gold Cup showdown but this is closer to the race that never was – Arkle versus his stable-companion Flyingbolt, the only horse that threatened his supremacy once Mill House was crushed. Like Kauto Star and Denman at Paul Nicholls’ yard, Arkle and Flyingbolt stood in adjoining boxes at Tom Dreaper’s stables. But Flyingbolt got sick and the head-to-head didn’t happen. This week has confirmed that we are on course for the ultimate.

At Kempton on Boxing Day, Kauto Star produced the performance of his life to destroy his four leading home-based rivals. He has now won 14 of his 24 races and over £1 million in prize-money in five seasons on the track starting as a three-year-old in France. He is the ruling champion from two miles to three and a half. He has speed, stamina, race-winning courage and improved jumping ability. He will take all the toppling.

Denman, who hammered home in a sprint finish at Leopardstown on Friday, is not as experienced or as fast. But the contrast is the beauty of it. He may be the same age, seven years old, as Kauto Star but he didn’t start until he was five, and then in a point-to-point in deepest Ireland. He is a huge, liver chesnut compared to Kauto Star’s tall imperious bay. Kauto Star may be the complete package but Denman is every massive inch the challenger.

Some at Leopardstown carped at the effort needed to dismiss inferior rivals but in truth the race only adds to the anticipation. For while it emphasised that Denman will have to attack to blunt Kauto Star’s finish at Cheltenham, it also confirmed the quite magnificent power and security of his jumping.

Whoever rides him in the Gold Cup, and stable jockey Ruby Walsh has the most envied choice in history, will know that they can wind up Denman and literally hurl him at those final fences. At this moment you would still have to favour Kauto Star on anything but heavy going. But Denman is the improver. By March he might even be a match for Kauto. The stratosphere awaits.

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