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Denman: Racehorses essay

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We pay tribute to Denman, who died on Tuesday at the age of 18.

Oh ye of little faith, wherefore didst thou doubt? Steeplechasing's biggest clash in years - between the outstanding stable-companions Kauto Star and Denman - really caught the public imagination and seemed to divide opinion almost equally on the long road to Cheltenham. For much of the season, as the pair successfully negotiated their respective stepping-stones to the Cheltenham Festival, the bookmakers found it hard to separate them in the Gold Cup ante-post betting, with defending champion Kauto Star mostly just having the edge.

At the start of Cheltenham week, one of the big four, Coral, bet 11/10 each of two and, as the Gold Cup drew nearer and rain continued, some layers were forecasting that Denman might start favourite. Come the day, however, after all the arguments had been put and all the professional opinion listened to (including the trainer's `Denman has a mountain to climb to beat Kauto'), Denman found himself almost deserted by the racing media (the Daily Telegraph was able to trumpet the next day that J. A. McGrath was the only national newspaper racing correspondent to select Denman).

The strong body of opinion that Denman's stamina and sound jumping would decide a war of attrition seemed to have melted away by that stage. With the going good to soft, the perception suddenly appeared to be that Denman was facing a task almost akin to St Peter's being asked to walk on water. He drifted to 9/4 on the day as Kauto Star was supported down to 11/10-on. The general consensus was that Kauto Star would not be inconvenienced by the conditions and would have too much speed for Denman who would make the running and be `a sitting duck' for his rival.

The hope that Kauto Star and Denman - whose ten rivals included the previous year's runner-up Exotic Dancer - would jump the last together in a stirring battle (as Golden Miller and Thomond had done) was not realised as Denman meted out a merciless drubbing to an underperforming Kauto Star, a fine champion made to look fairly ordinary by championship standards on this occasion. A race talked about for months may not have quite delivered everything expected of it, but Denman nonetheless still recorded the best Gold Cup performance in over a decade, jumping into the lead at the eleventh of the twenty-two fences and galloping on relentlessly, stretching his lead to a dozen lengths at the second last before winning by seven from Kauto Star with another stable-companion Neptune Collonges (who'd led until halfway) a short head away in third, highlighting the dominance of the Nicholls stable in jump racing in the latest season.

Denman's trainer reported before his reappearance in the Hennessy that `he is still eight to ten kilograms above his ideal racing weight and he faces a mammoth task'. Nonetheless, Denman overcame the apparent lack of a preparatory race in stunning style, having missed the Charlie Hall at Wetherby in early-November because of unsuitably firmish conditions. Denman's performance in a good quality and highly competitive eighteen-runner Hennessy narrowed the gap considerably between him and Kauto Star and was one of the best in the race's long history; with the notable exception of Burrough Hill Lad's victory under 12-0 in 1984, it was probably the best since Arkle's day.

As in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, Denman went to the front with a long way to go. Taking a good hold, he made most from the eighth and proceeded to run the opposition into the ground. Most of his rivals were already toiling when Sam Thomas (standing in for the injured Ruby Walsh) went for home in earnest on Denman from five out. In complete command from a long way out, the relentless Denman won easily by eleven lengths and eight from Dream Alliance (received 19 lb) and Character Building (received 26 lb), with Madison du Berlais fourth and Knowhere fifth (Snowy Morning fell at the seventh). 

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