Denman: 'He could pick you up and chuck you out the box or take your arm off'
Fans' Favourites is a weekly feature in the Racing Post Weekender in which we talk to those closest to racing's most popular horses and find out why they tug on our heartstrings. This week's subject: Denman
Outstanding. Phenomenal. Remorseless. You could go through a whole thesaurus and still not come up with enough superlatives to describe the awesome Denman.
A giant of jump racing – a term that can be used literally given his extraordinary size – Denman established himself as indisputably one of the best staying chasers of the 21st century with a series of destructive victories in some of Britain and Ireland’s top races for owners Paul Barber and Harry Findlay and trainer Paul Nicholls.
His 2008 Gold Cup triumph, which featured one of the most highly anticipated Cheltenham clashes of all time against defending champion, stablemate and next-door neighbour Kauto Star, will go down in history as one of the finest displays of powerful galloping and jumping of all time.
But just as impressive as his Cheltenham exploits were his victories in the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury, where in 2009 he became the first horse since Arkle to become a dual winner of the prestigious handicap, both times giving shedloads of weight away to the rest of the field. Since 1984, the Hennessy (now the Ladbrokes Trophy) has only been won three times by horses carrying top weight, and two of those performances belong to Denman.
“He had an outstanding record because he’s an outstanding horse and we’ll always remember him on Hennessy weeks,” said Nicholls, the 12-time champion trainer for whom Denman was a major part of a spectacular era at Ditcheat in the mid-to-late noughties.
“He was just a consistent horse who jumped, galloped and had a purple patch where he just seemed to win everything. He had a little problem and came back from it which just showed his resilience and his toughness. He was amazing.
“He could pick you up and chuck you out the box or take your arm off. He was always quite aggressive and didn’t suffer fools gladly. If you went up to his box and half teased him he’d have a go at you and he always stayed like that. Out in the field in the summer he was right as rain, but when he was in training the fitter he got the more aggressive he seemed to get, but that let you know he was ready.”
The Tank, as he came to be known, won 13 of his first 14 starts under rules, culminating in that famous Gold Cup. Issues with an irregular heartbeat played havoc with his follow-up campaign, and while he would go on to finish second a remarkable three more times in the Gold Cup, his only subsequent victory would come via his thrillingly emotional second Hennessy in 2009.
“I remember schooling him for the first time at Paul’s,” recalls jockey-turned-trainer Sam Thomas, the man in the saddle for six of Denman’s victories, including the Gold Cup and his first Hennessy.
“It was very exciting and wasn’t like anything I’d experienced before. I still ride out now and have some nice horses but Denman was on another level. He was always very keen to get on with it when he was in his prime and from the first time I sat on him it was clear he was very special. Now, I have pictures of him all over my house.”
His ability had not been quite as obvious at the start to Nicholls, who bought the horse with Barber shortly after an emphatic winning point-to-point debut at Liscarroll in spring 2005.
Nicholls says: “Paul and I both liked him when we saw him at Adrian Maguire’s, but it was more a case of him finding us really than the other way around, it was just a bit of luck that we were there that day. We’d been in a point-to-point in Ireland and I think Paul’s horse fell. We were on our way home and Adrian asked us to drop in on our way back and have a look at this horse that won a point-to-point last week.
“We went and had a look and decided to buy him, but we never thought we were buying a future Gold Cup winner or anything like that, and certainly not when he started training in that first year. I remember having a conversation with Paul and I said I think he’s quite slow, and we considered going straight over fences with him. I thought no, we better give him a few runs over hurdles just for a bit of experience. The first three or four months we weren’t excited because we didn’t know what sort of future he was going to have.”
Once unleashed on the track, it didn’t take long to figure out, though.
“The second time over hurdles was when we knew [how good he could be],” Nicholls continues. “He won the first day and was a bit green and ran all over the track and just about won. The second time he ran in a much better race. He went down the back straight cantering and Christian [Williams] gave him two taps and he just took off.
“Christian couldn’t pull him up afterwards – he came back in and immediately said this is the best horse I’ve ever ridden. The improvement from the first day is phenomenal and if he keeps that up he’ll be a star.”
Prophetic words from the erudite Welshman, as Denman surged to victory in all but one of his next 12 races, a shock defeat in the Royal & SunAlliance Novice Hurdle at the 2006 festival the only blemish.
As good as he was over hurdles, Denman was always destined for chasing and there was great anticipation as he made his bow over fences at Exeter on Halloween 2006. What followed was certainly a frightening experience for his five rivals that day and the remainder of the novice chase division as he thrashed the Grade 1-winning hurdler Penzance by ten lengths over an inadequate 2m1½f.
After a close call against future Grand National winner Don’t Push It next time, Denman then brutally swept all before him, culminating in another ten-length waltz in the SunAlliance Chase at Cheltenham in March to remain unbeaten over fences heading into his first appearance in open company and his first handicap start at Newbury in early December 2007.
Trabolgan’s weight-carrying victory two years prior was the first time a topweight had won the Hennessy since Burrough Hill Lad in 1984 and Denman was giving at least 9lb away to the rest of the field. A starting price of 5-1 was the longest odds he had ever gone off at and this was his first time not being favourite since his second run over hurdles.
But there was little need to worry as an 11-length rout under Thomas leapt Denman to favouritism for the Gold Cup – Kauto Star would reclaim that berth by the time of the race – to continue his extraordinary rise.
“To be giving weight away like he was is no easy task but he made my life simple and to be honest the main challenge was to make sure he jumped off,” remembers Thomas. “He had a tendency to sometimes dig his toes in at the start but once he jumped off it was all plain sailing from there.
“I was a very lucky jockey to be in the right place at the right time. Thankfully, he was a jockey’s dream to ride and I just had to make sure I didn’t mess it up.
“He jumped and travelled with ease and that’s what made him the superstar he was. He had such a high cruising speed and he could maintain that which is what made it so difficult for the other horses going up against him.”
Nicholls adds: “Of course it’s difficult [to win a Hennessy off top weight], but more and more I’m coming around to the fact that topweights can win handicaps, like we saw recently with Yala Enki, because they’re more often than not the best horse in the race.
“Because they’re carrying that weight you have to get them ready for their lives, but he was a big horse which made carrying that weight easier and looking back he was probably more well handicapped than some that day. He was all class.”
Denman continued to swat aside all before him and provided Nicholls with his first Lexus Chase at Leopardstown over Christmas before landing Newbury’s Aon Chase, both with Ruby Walsh riding, on the way to his date with destiny against Kauto Star on March 14, 2008.
Given the choice of the two, Walsh remained loyal to Kauto Star, meaning Thomas resumed the ride on Denman and was given the thrill of his life as Denman produced one of the most monstrous jumping performances Cheltenham has ever seen.
Thomas says: “There was such a huge build-up and I’d never experienced anything like that and probably never will again. For weeks and months there was hype and it was great just to be a part of it.
“Everyone had their camp but nobody really knew who was going to come out on top. We had huge confidence in our horse and it’s a huge credit to Paul that he was able to produce all those horses for the big day.
“Harry Findlay was really instrumental in how we rode that race. The plan was to take it on and really lay it down to Kauto and Denman was seriously brave on the day. I can’t vouch for other horses but in my short riding career he’d be in top place for me. Nobody will ever really know how he compares with the Arkles and other greats but he is definitely up there as one of the very, very best.”
An interrupted 2008-09 campaign did not see Denman at his brilliant best, although he still produced a huge effort to chase home Kauto Star in his Gold Cup defence. After reaching almost unfathomable heights, Denman now appeared to be on the way down, but he still was able to produce one more euphoric peak back at Newbury in autumn 2009.
This time Thomas was in the unfortunate position of lining up against Denman in the Hennessy on stablemate What A Friend, a young and improving second-season chaser who would receive a mammoth 22lb from his older rival.
That What A Friend would go on to win a Lexus and an Aintree Bowl later that season only puts Denman’s stupendous effort into further context as he galloped most of his rivals into submission before outjumping What A Friend at the last when neck and neck and outbattling him to the line to the delight of an adoring crowd.
“I was getting tons of weight off him that day but I knew I was on a horse that wasn’t in the same calibre,” says Thomas. “I got criticised that day for going wide up the straight but I knew full well if I stalked Denman and got upside him I would only be encouraging him to go and win the race so I purposely kept away from him.
“We got our head in front going to the last but What A Friend just didn’t quite have the ability and Denman showed his true colours by digging very deep. We got firmly put in our place.”
Nicholls adds: “I think that probably was his last peak. He still ran a few good races after it and finished placed in a couple of Gold Cups, but winning that second Hennessy off top weight was probably his pinnacle.
“Looking at what What A Friend did after that just shows what a monumental performance it was. Winning the Hennessy twice off top weight is astonishing.
“The first one was his second season as a chaser and it’s always a good race for those types of horse who are probably a bit better handicapped than some. The second time was after he came back from his problems and to win that was really special. He’d had a tough old time. That was a special day, I remember the crowd and everyone going absolutely wild.”
Nonetheless, Denman still retained enough raw power and ability to finish second in another two Gold Cups, although an attempt for an unprecedented third Hennessy came unstuck when finishing third off a mark of 182 in 2010. The superstar son of Presenting has since been honoured at Newbury with the renaming of February’s Grade 2 Aon Chase as the Denman Chase in 2012 and the opening of the Denman Gates in 2019.
Denman spent his retirement team chasing in the Cotswolds with Charlotte Alexander before relaxing in the field of owner Paul Barber, where he was looked after by the owner’s step-daughter Emma until his passing in 2018 at the age of 18.
The quest for the next Denman will never stop for Nicholls, who has not been afraid to mention the up-and-coming Bravemansgame in the same breath as the magnificent former champion. “Hopefully I’ve got another one like him now,” he says. “If Bravemansgame or any of the others could do what Denman did we’d be doing very well indeed.”
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