Joyous scenes as mighty Denman shows he's back to brilliant best
First published on Sunday, November 29, 2009
Jumping has known few more joyful days than this. The task before Denman was mammoth, so much so that neither his most ardent admirers nor those who know him best were truly convinced he could do it. But Denman did and, in doing so, triggered scenes of rapture rarely before witnessed at Newbury.
For very good reason, it is said they never come back, but Denman yesterday came back bigger and better than ever to secure a second top-weight success in the Hennessy Gold Cup.
But while his first triumph in this chasing classic was astonishing, the second was nigh on unbelievable, in part because of what was required to achieve it, in part because of the days of dejection that had gone before.
Since defying 11st 12lb as a 161-rated second-season chaser in 2007, there had been Gold Cup glory for the Paul Nichollstrained giant.
But the elation of that day was followed by emotion of a very different order. The discovery of a potentially life-threatening heart condition delayed Denman's reappearance last season, and he did not return the same horse.
Yes, he achieved a respectable but distant second to Kauto Star in the Gold Cup, but either side of that effort were a woefully lacklustre run at Kempton and a fall at Aintree so severe that many at first feared the worst.
Yesterday, those fans - for Denman is a horse who has fans - experienced the best as their hero emulated Arkle and Mandarin with a second Hennessy victory.
"To see that was very, very special," said Nicholls, describing the race and the win as "one of those experiences I'll never forget".
Racing off a mark of 174, 13lb higher than in 2007, Denman was sent off a heavily backed 11-4 favourite after positive words from joint-owner Harry Findlay.
However, those who had backed the nine-year-old were made to sweat through the early stages. To take the prominent position he wanted, Ruby Walsh, wearing the silks of Findlay's fellow owner Paul Barber, was forced to galvanise his mount on the run to the first fence, and it was only on the approach to the water jump that Denman claimed an outright advantage.
The lead was lost heading out on the second circuit, but it was regained exiting the back straight, where Walsh, like Sam Thomas two years earlier, began to test those in pursuit. As rivals dropped away, Irish Grand National winner Niche Market continued to find more, while the Queen's Barbers Shop looked dangerous, as did Denman's Thomas-ridden stablemate What A Friend.
By the time the final fence was reached, only What A Friend could deny Denman, and deny him it seemed he would. Then, though, Sir Alex Ferguson's youngster cocked his jaw and began looking for the white flag.
Like so many horses before him, he had been broken by Denman, who floored him by three and a half lengths. Niche Market edged out the non-staying Barbers Shop to take third.
"I didn't think that was possible," said Walsh after returning to a reception the like of which Newbury has seldom seen. "I thought if he ran an absolute cracker, he could still only finish third or fourth. Then I thought when What A Friend came to him we were beaten because of the weight difference, but he's so gutsy. At times I've known him more enthusiastic, but I'd still say that's his best performance with me on his back."
Asked whether he envisaged riding Denman - who will be rested until Newbury's Aon Chase in February - or Kauto Star in the Gold Cup, Walsh wisely sat on the fence. So did Ladbrokes, who go 7-4 each of two, and Coral, who make the Ditcheat duo 2-1 jointfavourites.
No firm offers bigger than 5-2 about Denman.
Findlay might be keen to take it. "The bookmakers might not be able to separate them for the Gold Cup, but I can - Denman's favourite," said Findlay, adding: "I think he'll win the Gold Cup pulling a cart!" No plans were announced for What A Friend, but Niche Market has one definite target. "What a run," said trainer Bob Buckler. "He battled, he jumped, and he tried. We'll have to look at the National now."
Barbers Shop, conversely, has no hope of staying the National trip. Trainer Nicky Henderson said: "He travelled well but it was a test of stamina in that ground, which might not be his thing. He got a bit tired, but it was a wonderful performance by the winner."
It was, and we can look forward with relish to more such wonderful performances and what seems sure to be a sensational third Cheltenham clash between Denman and Kauto Star.
"What a Gold Cup we're going to be in for this season," said Nicholls. "We can't wait!" And so say all of us.
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