'I grew to love him. His size and power were incredible'
Alastair Down on the living legend ten years after his first Hennessy triumph
First published in November 2017 to celebrate ten years since Denman's first Hennessy Gold Cup
Paul Barber, of Denman fame, lives in the Ditcheat farmhouse in which he was born and presides over a dairy and cheese empire of dizzying proportions. Every day Barber’s business takes in the milk from some 140 farms across the West Country and at any one time he has cheddar to the value of around £10m maturing in his barns. Try to fit that little lot in your fridge.
In his back garden, however, is something beyond price, the rarest of equine commodities. Denman stands out there and Barber can watch him every day, continuing a bond between man and horse that was forged in the heat of battle.
Back in 2011 as Denman stood steaming in the Cheltenham unsaddling enclosure after his heroic second to Long Run in the Gold Cup, Barber said: “It’s very emotional for me. I feel like pushing the wife over to one side of the bed and having him in the middle.”
Now 17, Denman lives in cherished retirement at Barber's home and is hale and hearty even if, like many a senior citizen, he has some aches and pains.
Barber says: “Lots of people ring up and say ‘we’re in your neck of the woods, can we come and see him?’
“I see him every day. He looks at me and I look at him and if it starts pissing down with rain he turns away as if to say ‘time to go in the dry’.
“We’ve resurrected an old rug with Denman written on it. Paul Nicholls gave all the others to the lads who had been close to the horse.
“He has a bit of a stifle problem at the moment, which is simply down to all the wear and tear of his races. And he had a problem a few years ago that led to a bone graft on a hind leg.
“He was away at the equine hospital in Newmarket for a few months and then returned to Charlotte Alexander, who did such a good job with him. But this is his home and it’s where he’ll stay.”
It must be special to have a Gold Cup winner just outside your back door but Denman was more than that. He could pluck away at your heartstrings with all the emotional reach of Pablo Casals.
Like the immortal cellist, he was a virtuoso. Not of the concert hall but the brute realities of the racecourse, with Cheltenham and Newbury the venues for his most unforgettable performances.
The Nicholls wagon rumbled up to Cheltenham with its priceless cargo on eight occasions. He never finished out of the first two, winning the 2008 Gold Cup and finishing runner-up in three more. There wasn't a soul he failed to stir or any shield upon which he was not carried out.
On reflection it borders on the bizarre that he should share chasing's stage with his next-door neighbour and fellow immortal Kauto Star. Proof positive that lightning does strike twice in the same place.
Nicholls well remembers the first time he clapped eyes on Denman. "Paul and I were at a point-to-point in Ireland where it was hammering it down with rain and we were getting soaked. A good chum said there was a horse at Adrian Maguire's we should see as it was only ten minutes down the road," he recalls.
"Well, it was the usual thing and we arrived at Adrian's about 110 minutes later. Denman had won his point-to-point and when he came out of his box that was it – we had to have him, we didn't even need to see the video of him winning. We did the deal on the spot."
There are two versions of how Denman used to work at Ditcheat. Nicholls opts for "he showed us f**k all at home" while Barber reports "he did absolutely nothing".
That represents a unanimous verdict that Denman never presented any threat to the pigeons of Somerset. Or even the snails for that matter.
Nicholls says: "Paul thought that as he was a big, strong type he could go over fences but we went down the hurdles road.
"Christian Williams rode him at Wincanton in October and he won by a couple of lengths. He went back to Wincanton the next month and knew a lot more about what he was doing, winning by about 15. Christian came back in and said 'this is the best I've ever sat on'."
Next stop was the Grade 1 Challow Hurdle, which took place at Cheltenham on January 1, 2006, having been moved from Newbury. Denman knocked seven bells out of his rivals and won by 21 lengths. It was New Year's Day and a new era was opening.
At the festival he was beaten by Nicanor in the Royal & SunAlliance Novices' Hurdle and Ruby Walsh gave himself a bit of a kicking for not having made more use of him.
File that defeat under 'blip' because Denman's attentions were now turned to what he was foaled for – chasing.
He won his first nine races over fences, and what races they were. As he glided smoothly up the slippery slope to his first Hennessy and the Gold Cup, there grew an extraordinary groundswell of public affection for him that waxed and evolved into something akin to love.
His bruiser-like frame and battleship qualities drew us to him. He was like one of those mighty dreadnoughts of old, all guns, armour and seemingly unsinkable.
The transition to indisputable greatness came on December 1, 2007 when, ridden by his now regular jockey Sam Thomas, Denman won the Hennessy by 11 lengths under the massive impost of 11st 12lb.
"He wasn't over-complicated because he did what he wanted to do but riding him was different to any other. That first Hennessy was surreal, although I was younger then and didn't really take it all in.
"He was like a ticking timebomb you had to keep the lid on. I managed that for the first circuit but running down in front of the stands to the water he just took off and from then on I was a bit of a bystander."
For the rest of us, bystanders all, the sheer joyous glee of watching Denman shrug off his rivals like so many dirty shirts will never be forgotten.
That day I wrote that "Denman brutalised this field" and would not trade that description these ten years on. It was a performance as merciless as it was magnificent.
Nor was a fraction of it lost on the Newbury crowd. Hennessy day attracts many a Z-list alleged celebrity and a smattering of third-rank royals but it is very much an occasion for devotees of the staying chaser hungry for great deeds in the tradition of Arkle, Mill House and Mandarin and other giants who have made the afternoon their own.
Sensing the moment, the gathered clans roared Denman home like banshees with all decorum thrown to the four winds. Not shaken but stirred.
Nicholls remembers: "It was amazing. When he went by the post there was an eruption of hats, papers and God knows what thrown in the air.
"He could be a grumpy old sod in his box and take your arm off. But on course he gave everything." The sinner as saint.
And so to Cheltenham and the first Gold Cup clash with Kauto Star. Rarely has a race been the subject of such a build-up and as Barber recalls: "If you went to London there were posters of them on the underground."
On the day Kauto Star went off at 10-11 with Denman 9-4. But Kauto Star was never jumping with that metronome fluency the Gold Cup demands – not least because Denman and Thomas pulled the rhythm out of him.
Taking it up as they went out on the second circuit, under an "apprehensive" Thomas, Denman steadily tightened his grip on the ultimate staying chase.
Four from home Sam took a look under his arm and let Denman surge. He ran home seven lengths to the good from Kauto Star, who never flinched an inch in his pursuit.
Nicholls recalls: "I don't think Kauto was at his best that day and he was certainly outstayed. Denman was out on his head afterwards as he'd put so much into it. When he went to the dope box the vets said they'd never seen a horse so hot and he was like that for an hour before he got back to normal. He had given everything and more, but that was him."
Later that year Denman was diagnosed with a fibrillating heart and he was off the course for 11 months and perhaps more ill than we realised at the time.
He was slammed 13 lengths fair and square by Kauto Star in the 2009 Gold Cup and Nicholls thinks he was "never quite the same horse" after his problems, but he still came back to win another Hennessy.
For Barber this was in many ways Denman's finest hour. He says: "For me he was always 10lb below his best after his layoff, so his second Hennessy was the race I enjoyed the most. To come back from what he'd been through was all heart."
With Ruby Walsh in the saddle, Denman gutsed it out to the line to beat stablemate What A Friend and Nicholls said afterwards: "He was awesome today given how poorly he was last year. I'm mighty proud of him."
There has always been the assumption that Barber and Findlay eventually fell out but that is not the truth.
Barber says: "Harry is Harry. Some people think he's dreadful but he's very generous but foolhardy at the same time. Just daft really. He did a lot for me and vice versa.
"I still talk to him regularly. I never forget when we sold the horses we shared at Donny.
"We had a bit of lunch and late on the swing doors at the end of the restaurant burst open and in came all the press. Harry took one look at them and said 'Well done lads, you've come to the last supper'."
Denman finished second in the Gold Cup to Kauto Star, Imperial Commander and Long Run.
That final Cheltenham run remains one of the most precious memories of my several decades in racing. Kauto Star and Denman were the stuff of magic that day. It is invidious perhaps to quote one's own words but don't expect apologies.
After Imperial Commander became the first to crack, "there they were, Kauto Star and Denman, the 11-year-old box neighbours, hammering away at each other for the lead, two marvellously irresponsible old men out for some mad last hurrah and damned if they were ready to admit that the days of youth were behind them.
"Twice Sam Thomas's whip fell on Denman and that great head went down even lower as he struggled for the mastery, the very beau ideal of the staying chaser in full cry."
Even now the scenes of adulation in the winner's enclosure pulse through you. Long Run won the day but the heartfelt greeting the second and third, drenched in sweat and glory, received when they returned was the very stuff of jumping passion.
Late in the day, tapping out the majestic tale on my laptop, the tears flowed. Never did salt taste so sweet.
A mad, exciting bringer of joy
There is no doubt that the unimpeachable Kauto Star's achievements exceeded those of Denman. But for some of us there is only one winner in the love and affection stakes.
Both men and women are attracted to very different types. Some like the respectable, others the risk of the distinctly disreputable.
You could always take Kauto Star home for tea with your mother but if you wanted a mad, exciting and mildly dangerous night out on the hammer it would have to be Denman every time.
There is something reassuring about the thought that he is at home in Ditcheat growing old gracefully or, more likely, disgracefully.
That is not being soppy, it is simply a bone-marrow gratitude for the days he gave us. Think back on his two Hennessys and those bravura four Gold Cups.
If they still sent men to the moon it would be a Denman rocket, not a Saturn, that powered them spectacularly up to heights beyond the rarefied.
Here was a chaser who indeed "slipped the surly bonds of earth and danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings". Thank God for him.
Something about Denman always provoked a smile. He was a joy-bringer and to have shared his time is an incalculable privilege.
Look back on a sizzling year of racing in the new edition of the Racing Post Annual, priced at only £12.99, which has 208 colour pages packed with the best stories and pictures of 2017. To buy click here or call 01933 304858