Denman's racing immortality leaves mere passing firmly in the shade
On the day Denman would have turned 20, Steve Dennis honours the Gold Cup hero
Published in the Racing Post on June 7, 2018
Death shall have no dominion. How could it, when Denman had gained racing immortality long ago? Death takes a moment and is gone, but a life so well lived is everlasting.
The final kindness of the needle, gently and mournfully wielded, ushered Denman from his quiet field into the Elysian Field where all the horses go, the great and the good and the only ordinary.
Now, just out of our earshot, a strong, steady voice is announcing his arrival, and from the depths of the long, sweet grass Kauto Star has pricked up his ears and is walking quickly towards his old neighbour, old rival, old friend.
Denman's gone. No more will he lift his head as pheasants rise from the hedgerows with a clatter of wings, no more will he carefully present his backside to those seeking an audience, his silent, eloquent method of deterring conversation.
But what a treasury he leaves us. Death takes life but it cannot subtract from it, can't diminish that which came before. Denman's legacy is inviolable.
We know about the Cheltenham Gold Cup, the two Hennessys, the RSA Chase, the Lexus, the Racing Post Rating of 184, all the enduring excelsior of a career that never failed to excite.
What the bare statistics cannot convey, though, and what will form the main strand of a million reminiscences, is the way Denman went about his work. Some horses glide across the turf, others plod sturdily over it, but Denman hammered it into submission. At his great and glorious peak, he was an elemental force like no other.
He was a big horse, a throwback to a half-forgotten age of steeplechasing when giants strode the earth. We called him The Tank, in tribute to his size, but also to his relentlessness. He was the irresistible force, and woe betide any immovable object that lay in his way. Sometimes it was a rival, sometimes a long-established record, sometimes it was simply the bulwarks of belief that were turned to matchwood by his might.
His victory in the Gold Cup was a good example. Not only did he steal the crown from Kauto Star, he wrenched it away with barely credible brute force, alloyed with a rough-edged elegance and economy of effort.
To watch him come barrelling down the Cheltenham hill, turning for home full of running, is to witness the perfect exposition of equine power. He would have run through a brick wall that day and not turned a hair.
Together with his stablemate he helped change the aspect of his sport. Denman and Kauto Star were like United and City, like Federer and Nadal, like Coe and Ovett, opposing styles, opposite poles of brilliance.
Between them they transcended the mere technicalities of their sport, seemingly spurred each other to greater heights, victory for one more sweet and more meaningful when gained at the expense of the other.
Ostensibly, you were implacably either for Denman or for Kauto Star, but that did not preclude a warm and genuine appreciation of the other's talents, nor the unavailing arguments about who was the better.
Perhaps it was in his two Hennessy wins that we truly saw the greatest of Denman, though. They were similar in execution – he mercilessly crushed the opposition – but very different in context.
His first victory, in 2007, was peak Denman, the mighty athlete in his pomp. He was still unbeaten over fences, his limits unknown, and he carried his 11st 12lb burden as a weightlifter might carry a small child on his shoulders. We thrilled to him, struck by all sorts of awe.
Two years later, it was a different Denman. He had been made to seem mortal, a shell of his former self, laid low by his heart problems, his proud record in tatters, his crown lost for good. On his previous start, he had fallen for the first time. Now his 11st 12lb looked like a millstone around the neck of a war-wearied veteran.
Yet his spirit remained intact. He summoned up 'old Denman' for the final time, put his shoulder to the wheel, wore his battered old heart on his sleeve, and although it looked like very hard work he didn't shrink from the task until it was done.
It would be his last victory, his last hurrah, and as he returned to his adoring public there were not a few of them with tears rolling down their cheeks.
Now those tears are falling again, now that great heart is stilled. Denman is no more. One more long, luxurious summer at grass would have been a blessing, but it was time to go.
But as long as horses race, whenever the dust is blown in clouds from ancient record books, wherever men and women come together to talk about their champions, Denman will be brought bewitchingly to life.
Years hence, when younger faces light up at the exploits of the next great star (for there is always a next great star), old heads will nod and then these words will follow: "Ah, but you never saw Denman, did you."
And the stories will be told again. Denman will never die, you see; in this way he will live forever.
More RP Classics:
Keep up to date on the must-have news, tips, photos and more by following the Racing Post across all social channels