Denman's awesome Hennessy display under top weight dispels all doubts
First published in the Racing Post on Sunday December 2, 2007
It was far better than anyone could have hoped, more than Paul Nicholls believed him capable of first time out and under top weight, yet on yesterday's evidence there was no need to doubt Denman, who delivered a performance that would have shaken the confidence of even the most Kauto Star-struck.
Winners of the Hennessy Gold Cup under 11st 12lb are rare –Trabolgan's triumph two years ago was the first by the handicap topweight since Burrough Hill Lad in 1984.
In matching their achievements yesterday, Denman produced a display to rival those of his illustrious predecessors, turning a supposedly competitive £150,000 handicap into a rout, an outcome that had significant repercussions on the Cheltenham Gold Cup betting market.
At least one major high-street bookmaker was prepared to promote Denman to ante-post favourite: Coral cut his odds to 6-4 (from 4-1), easing Kauto Star to 7-4 (from 11-8), yet the top price still available last night was 5-2.
Denman has the build to carry top weight, but those broad shoulders will now have to bear the burden of considerable expectation until March. He and Kauto Star will not clash until the Cheltenham Festival, but Harry Findlay, joint-owner with Paul Barber, reckons he knows the result already.
"I have always believed we can be an 8lb inferior horse to Kauto Star and still beat him at Cheltenham," he said. "On soft ground or heavy ground I think he would be evens. I think if it comes up soft or heavy at Cheltenham we are a certainty.
"I hoped this was what would happen. Paul was a bit negative on Thursday. He must have weighed him and found him a bit heavier than he thought.
"I think he is a different horse this season. He is much calmer and much sharper mentally."
While Findlay had been confident, Nicholls had sown seeds of uncertainty in his Racing Post column, confiding that he told Barber during the week that Denman was "a bit burly" and "needs to be tighter than that to win a Hennessy".
Burly or not, the Royal & SunAlliance Chase winner's unbeaten record over fences was never under threat. With Sir Rembrandt setting only a steady pace, Denman had jumped his way to join him at the water jump as the field completed the first circuit without favourite Snowy Morning, who fell at the seventh.
Once Sam Thomas made his move leaving the back straight, the pair were totally in command, drawing steadily clear to win comfortably by 11 lengths from Dream Alliance, with Character Building third and Madison Du Berlais fourth.
Nicholls said: "That was an awesome performance first time out. I didn't believe he would do that. I hadn't put anyone away because he will improve for the run. You just have to look at him to see that. He is having a good blow there. We did as much as we could do bar having a run.
"He is a huge horse, and for me to go and say I think he would win first time out, you just don't do things like that. We've worked hard. We took him to Exeter and have done our best to get him as fit as we could today. It was a very good performance.
"The great thing was that Sam settled him early on. I was nervous he would tank for the first mile and leave himself nothing for the end, but he relaxed and once he did I thought we were in with a big shout after that. I did say to Sam, if you are in front turning in, they won't beat you then."
BHB head of handicapping Phil Smith was already reassessing his rating of Denman. "He will be rated in the mid-to-high 170s," he said. "He just seems to grind them into the ground." Yet Nicholls will let racecourse performances determine which is best out of Kauto Star and Denman. They will not meet before Cheltenham, Kauto Star contesting the King George VI Chase and Denman the Lexus Chase in Ireland at Christmas.
"They are two totally different horses," he said. "You have to remember, Denman has won off a mark of 161. Kauto Star is on 179. The gap is going to close, obviously, but they are not going to take each other on until Cheltenham.
"You want to be asking the boys which one they want to be riding. A lot is going to happen between now and then. Denman has improved enormously and there is still a lot of improvement in him.
"It is going to be hard because Kauto Star is an incredibly good horse. Both him and Exotic Dancer are going to be hard to go by, but this horse might be the one who is going to make them go."
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