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FeatureThe People's Champion

Denman: they called him The Tank for good reason - and he pushed the boundaries of what we thought possible

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Lewis PorteousReporter

To mark National Racehorse Week, through the next five days we're profiling your five finalists in the race to be crowned The People's Champion. First up, Lewis Porteous – with the help of Racing Post readers – considers what made Denman so special. You can now vote for your champion here.

Everyone knows about the stellar Cheltenham Gold Cup win, the two Hennessys under a saddle full of lead and the bloodless RSA Chase victory, but what cannot be conveyed in the form book is the manner in which Denman marched to steeplechasing's summit.

They called him 'The Tank' for good reason. Whereas some horses appear to float across the ground and sail effortlessly over their fences, it was the thud of Denman's hooves against the turf and the crunch of parting birch echoing in the air that captivated the army of fans who swore their allegiance to one of the great modern-day stars.

"His running style makes him my ideal jumps horse," wrote Matthew Sheehan, one of many in that army who got behind Denman when contacting us to nominate their favourite. "I just liked his attitude," added fellow reader Tim Kent.

Denman is led into the winner's enclosure after the 2008 Cheltenham Gold Cup
Denman is led into the winner's enclosure after the 2008 Cheltenham Gold CupCredit: Edward Whitaker

At the time it might have been more fashionable to shun Denman for his Ditcheat neighbour Kauto Star, a precocious talent who made it trendy to shop in France, but one of the many appeals of Denman was that he bridged the gap to an era when size, strength and stamina epitomised the staying chaser.

Think Fred Winter and Fulke Walwyn or The Dikler and L'Escargot. That was the sort of cloth from which Denman – "everything a staying chaser should be," according to Edward Sheehan – was cut and perhaps the reason he resonated with those with the longest memories.

Warwick Potter, for example, recalled watching racing since the early 1980s, seeing many greats over jumps and on the Flat, but concluded: "Denman represents the best in a thoroughbred."

Denman might not have the same range of achievements as his stablemate or the other finalists in The People's Champion, but the way he was able to utterly dominate Kauto Star, the winner of two Gold Cups, two Tingle Creeks, four Betfair Chases and five King Georges, in that 2008 Gold Cup elevated him to the status of all-time great. Name another who could even dream about dominating King Kauto in his pomp?

Denman Fans' Favourites: 'He could pick you up and chuck you out the box or take your arm off'  

Come the Gold Cup, Denman had already landed the Challow Novices' Hurdle, the RSA Chase, his first Hennessy, the Lexus Chase and the Aon. But this was his defining moment and he conquered in true Denman style.

In arguably the most eagerly anticipated Gold Cup clash since Arkle faced Mill House in the 1960s, Denman was the narrow underdog despite having been beaten just once in 13 starts under rules.

The crowd roared approvingly as he went to the front passing the stands with a circuit to go, the stage set perfectly with Kauto Star within striking distance. The tempo started to quicken from that point but the decisive moment did not come until after the fourth-last, when Denman's rider Sam Thomas looked under his arm to see how his big rival was travelling. Whatever he sensed, it was enough for Thomas to ask Denman to strike early, and tellingly. He responded by crushing his rivals to pieces.

It was brutal, yet at the same time it was beautiful. Tanking along, he was close to 12 lengths clear reaching the wings of the second-last. He had broken the resolve of Kauto Star, who to his credit toughed it out to finish second, but there were seven lengths between the pair at the line, leaving the crowd to salute a truly monstrous performance, "one of the best in history" in the view of Harry New, another reader to nominate The Tank.

Getting the job done so emphatically in chasing's Blue Riband event secured his passage to the pantheon, but perhaps it was in his two Hennessy wins where Denman was at his mightiest. There were similar characteristics in both successes as his Gold Cup triumph, yet they could hardly have been achieved in more contrasting circumstances.

Unbeaten over fences, Denman was in his prime in 2007, an unstoppable force even under 11st 12lb. Two years later, it was a different Denman. Initially laid low after the diagnosis of a fibrillating heart following his Gold Cup heroics, he approached Newbury's biggest jumps race after his first three defeats over fences and having fallen for the first time in his career on his previous start.

Ruby Walsh took over in the saddle but Denman had the same burden of 11st 12lb to carry and without his veil of invincibility. Yet his spirit remained and he was back in a familiar position at the fourth-last fence.

There was no fuel to spare on this occasion but Denman made up for that in guts and determination, pouring it on as Thomas aboard What A Friend threw down a persistent challenge in the straight. It was an uneven contest, not because Denman was carrying 22lb more than his stablemate but because he lived to break the hearts of others. He had done just that to What A Friend by the final fence and boy did the crowd lap up Denman as he came clear on the run-in.

That timeless win proved to be the last of his career, yet he finished in front of Kauto Star again in a Gold Cup when failing by seven lengths to give five years to Long Run in another race for the ages in 2011. Denman was retired at the end of that year, owing to a tendon injury, with a record of 14 wins and six places from 24 starts, earning £1,141,347 along the way.

Yet it was never about wins, strike-rates or money where The Tank was concerned. It was how he went about his job that set him apart.

'He was the ultimate warhorse'

Denman’s heroics pushed the boundaries of what you thought possible. He embodied power, guts, heart; whatever you call it, he had it. He was the ultimate warhorse and his performances made you love him all the more.

His two Hennessys were in their own way mesmerising, and his Gold Cup win was the most incredible display of sheer power and will you could hope to see in that great hallowed amphitheatre at Cheltenham.

His heart scare even made him more relatable – the fallible hero, still trying with every sinew to battle on, and though older and robbed of the recklessness of youth, he still fought on to be second in three more Gold Cups.

Denman: "He transcended his sport and he inspired humans"Credit: David Dew

His record at Cheltenham is astonishing – he was never out of the first two in eight trips there. He did it on the biggest days, and he did it over and over again.

To see him in the flesh, you just felt you were in the presence of something greater, greater than his time, greater than the performances he put in, greater than the races he competed in.

Denman was special. He transcended his sport and he inspired humans. He was, and still is, my hero. RIP the great man. The Tank.
Peter de Lisle, Racing Post reader

Denman: the facts and figures

Foaled 2000 in Ireland, chestnut gelding by Presenting - Polly Puttens (Pollerton)

Owners Paul Barber & Margaret Findlay

Trainer Paul Nicholls, Ditcheat, Somerset

Jockeys Ruby Walsh, Sam Thomas

Record over fences Ten wins from 19 starts (2006-11)

Cheltenham Gold Cup 2008 (also runner-up three times)

Hennessy (now Coral) Gold Cup 2007, 2009 (under 11st 12lb both times)

Other big-race wins 2007 Royal & SunAlliance Chase, Lexus Chase, 2008 Aon (now Denman) Chase

Champion (top-rated) staying chaser 2007-08 (joint)

Best Racing Post Rating 184 in 2008 Cheltenham Gold Cup

Compiled by John Randall

Read more: 

Kauto Star beats Sea The Stars to take last spot in People's Champion final 

Red Rum sees off Tiger Roll in battle of Aintree legends with just one final place left to fill 

Frankel fends off Istabraq to make People's Champion final - now Denman and Dancing Brave fight it out 

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Published on 10 September 2023Last updated 16:08, 14 September 2023