Golden days behind him and peaceful years ahead
Ten years on from his first Hennessy victory, Denman is happy in retirement
First published in November 2017 to celebrate ten years since Denman's first Hennessy Gold Cup
Almanacked, their names live; they
Have slipped their names, and stand at ease
(At Grass, Philip Larkin)
You would not think, to look at him, but he was famous long ago. Cloaked now in the warm rug of anonymity rather than the gleaming raiment of battle, the muddy middle-aged horse in the quiet country field appears no different from a million of his kind. He is different, though. This is Denman.
Cheltenham Gold Cup hero, dual Hennessy Gold Cup winner, darling of the adoring masses, Denman stopped being a racehorse in December 2011, ended his second career as a team-chaser in April, shucked off his shoes and began the leisurely endgame of retirement back among the little Somerset lanes where he built his legend all those storied seasons ago. Now he lifts his head not for the noise of the crowd but for the possibility of an apple, or a carrot, or a nice mint.
"He seems quite happy, he's taken to the quiet life very well," says Emma Barber, daily guardian of the 17-year-old gelding, daughter-in-law of Denman's owner Paul Barber.
"He's out all day with his rugs on, he comes in at night, has lots to eat, has plenty of company with his old stablemate Cenkos and a hunter of mine. He's quite easy to deal with, old age has mellowed him, he's quite sociable really, walks across the field whickering when he sees me coming.
"He's had a busy life, had his injuries, there's a bit of wear and tear and now and again he's a bit lame behind, but we manage that and it's not too much of an issue. It's nice to have him here – he's a proper celebrity, isn't he?"
The passage of time and the change of role has done nothing to diminish the aura around Denman. It followed him from Manor Farm stables into the sphere of team-chasing, where he drew attention like a Premier League star turning out on Hackney Marshes of a Sunday
"He's always had that enormous presence, that character. Everyone recognised him," says team-chasing ace Charlotte Alexander, who benevolently reinvented Denman for a new discipline, who gave him the happiest of active 'retirements'.
"Any competition, anywhere, people would notice him. They loved watching him because he went about his job with such enthusiasm – he could be a bit of a bull at a gate sometimes, he loved to charge at his fences. He's such a showman, has such star quality, people idolised him."
Alexander now has Silviniaco Conti in his place – "Aren't I the lucky girl?" – and the dual King George winner has a little more refinement about him than did the raw, riotous Denman, who occasionally caused Alexander to drop her hands, close her eyes, and leave the rest to providence and the big horse himself.
"I had plenty of help from Brian Hutton at Talland [school of equitation] in adapting his jumping technique, supplying him with a few new tools. He had to learn to shorten his stride, to take more care, he couldn't use his back end that well – unlike Conti, who is great at it – but he did learn and improve.
"In turn, I couldn't be too bossy when I was riding him, I had to let him take charge, and we got on famously – as long as I held my nerve. And when he did well his confidence soared – he knew when he was doing well, and he liked to feel the approval coming down the reins, he relished that."
In the early days of their relationship Alexander and Denman had their moments, notably their first day out hunting – "It was the most exciting, terrifying experience of my life. He was amazed by everything, his eyes were out on organ stops. He went through a sheep fence and broke that, he was pretty wild" – but harmony was not long in coming, and Denman did very well at his second career.
The plan was always for Denman to go back to the Barbers when the time was right, and he spent last winter at grass before returning to Ditcheat in the spring. Alexander has Silviniaco Conti and Ulck Du Lin to occupy her time now but there is a Denman-shaped hole in her heart that hasn't yet healed.
"I do miss him terribly. You know how we get attached to our horses when we put our heart and soul into them. He is an amazing chap, a fabulous hunter, a beautiful ride, and he loved being spoilt, being cuddled, being a big pet.
"When he came to me in August 2012 Paul Nicholls told me to have fun with him, to enjoy him, to give him a lovely life. He did enjoy his time with me and now he'll enjoy his time with Emma."
Denman nods his head, as horses do, as though they understand, although it is probably just impatience at the slow arrival of the next carrot. Paul Barber pats his old hero on the neck, gazes at him with grandfatherly pride.
"That's it now, he's totally retired, a life of leisure," he says, the carrot now safely transferred from hand to mouth. "I never imagined I'd still be working while this chap takes it easy, but there you go.
"I'll pop over and see him most days. It's lovely to have him home again."
Denman decides he's had enough, ambles amiably away for another spot of doing nothing, swaddled against the winter. The former Tank rusts gently in the thin November sunlight, his great achievements safe from the erasing effects of time and memory, his name written in gold leaf for as long as leaves turn from green to gold and back again. By the time he reaches the middle of the field he looks like just another brown horse, unremarkable, unexceptional, but we know better, don't we.
Look back on the best jumps action of the year in the new edition of the Racing Post Annual. To buy click here or call 01933 304858