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Monday, 10 December, 2018

My equine hero Denman was the toughest ever and won a million hearts

The Thursday column

Denman is led in to the winner's enclosure after his 2008 Gold Cup triumph
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Ripping into the calm of a sunny summer morning came the notification on the phone. Denman has died. No no no no, not Denman.

Not the toughest racehorse I ever had the privilege of watching, the streetfighter who came back from heart problems to hammer his Hennessy rivals for a second time, the horse cum superhero.

Thoughts immediately jumped back to the most exhilarating thing I have ever seen on a racecourse, the 2007 Hennessy.

It was Denman’s first test since he had come of age by crushing his rivals in the RSA nine months earlier and, with top weight to carry, there were those who felt he would need to be an all-time great to see off a strong field.

It took him 6min 58sec to prove he was indeed an all-time great, as he took it up turning into the long Newbury straight and simply powered clear for a triumph that had tears in the eyes of many who watched it.

I was in a betting shop in Tunbridge Wells, having managed to wriggle out of Christmas shopping for a few minutes, and not even the utter ambivalence of my fellow customers, who had eyes only for the wretched machines, to what was unfolding could diminish my delight at the demolition job.

Denman went on to win a Gold Cup, another Hennessy and a million hearts with his destructive displays of no-nonsense galloping and staying.

His value to the sport is enormous. Denman was one of those rare horses who created huge numbers of new fans. His rivalry with next-door neighbour Kauto Star was the most captivating of the modern era and generated a feeling of excitement that lit up jump racing for years.

There was magic in the air while these two were slugging it out in their prime, helped massively by the willingness of their superb trainer Paul Nicholls to embrace and enhance this special era with his media-friendliness.

The tributes to this mighty beast came thick and fast throughout Wednesday, with the big names of racing and all those closely associated with him expressing their love and their grief.

But it has been the words of racing fans that have really illustrated why Denmania was such a thrilling phenomenon.

I feel lucky to have seen him … Still gives me goosebumps every time I watch his Gold Cup victory … I am inconsolable … This horse was the one that got me into racing.

That final comment was not an isolated example by any means. Lots of people clearly fell in love with the sport via the amazing careers of Denman and Kauto and that is the precious legacy these legendary chasers leave behind.

When potential new stars like Samcro emerge the reason it excites us so much is the tantalising possibility that they could go on to achieve equally spectacular feats as the Ditcheat duo. It makes us dream big.

The reality, of course, is that the likes of Denman come along once in a generation. He was the very definition of horsepower, a warrior who came back from a condition that would have finished most horses and became a champion again.

He was my favourite horse, my equine hero, and I wanted to see him strolling proudly around the parade ring on big days for many years to come.

But he leaves the most magical memories, brilliantly narrated by the likes of Hoiles and Holt, and there will be many a delve into the video archives in the coming days to relive the finest racing moments of my lifetime.

Sutton, not Karius, has no excuses

Essentially the worst thing a pundit can be is boring. No opinion is worse than a wrong opinion. But sometimes an opinion is spouted that is so wrong it would be better to offer no view at all.

That was the case when it came to Chris Sutton’s view of the revelation this week that Liverpool goalkeeper Loris Karius had suffered concussion in a collision with Real Madrid’s Sergio Ramos shortly before the first of his two catastrophic errors in the Champions League final.

I would have thought it would be difficult to form any other conclusion from the statement by American doctors that Karius had been found to be concussed when he made the mistakes that cost his side two goals than that this was a massively unfortunate incident but it was good a problem had been discovered that did much to exonerate the poor guy.

Sutton, however, saw it differently. Speaking on BBC Radio 5 Live, the former England striker claimed Karius should have kept quiet about the diagnosis because he was leaving himself open to accusations of making excuses for his clangers.

I’d have thought concussion is a pretty valid excuse for what happened. Karius has, to the best of memory, never before misjudged a roll out of the ball so it hit an opponent’s boot and went into the goal, and nor have I seen him fail to prevent a swerving long-range shot from going into the net.

And he clearly took a blow to the head from Ramos so maybe the concussion revelation simply makes sense of what happened in Kiev. Publicising the fact that he was concussed will help people in sport take head injuries more seriously.

What happened to Karius seemed like a disaster at the time but it was not. It simply led to his team losing a football match.

If we don’t recognise the dangers of playing on after a head injury there could one day be an incident that would fall firmly into the genuine disaster category.

It is hoped Karius is able to put this behind him and get his career back on track, and it is hoped Sutton, who generally gets more things right than wrong, displays a little more awareness of the bigger picture in future.

Derby day was a real tonic

So I get back from Epsom with empty pockets but a warm glow after a tremendous Derby day that took place amid a superb atmosphere and glorious weather, and a girl who lives on our road is standing there with her St John Ambulance uniform on.

It turns out she’s been on duty at Epsom and it was her first official assignment. I was surprised she had been so highly tried on her debut and would have thought they might have given her an outing at a church fete or something beforehand.

What was it like, I asked. Was she separating drunken brawlers and picking shards of glass out of people’s ears with tweezers?

No, she said. It was all really quiet. A few blister plasters were handed out along with some sun cream, but that was it. And she had lots of people come up to her and her colleagues to say thanks for being there to help them.

Some blokes even made room for them by the parade ring so they could see the horses close up.

And what did she make of Derby day? She said she plans to go as a racegoer next year because it looked such a brilliant day out.

After the shameful scraps at Goodwood and Ascot last month it is brilliant to see that peace has largely resumed and that racing can once again stand tall and let everyone know what a great day out it provides.

Shot-clock idea is marvellous

An extremely refreshing event is taking place in Austria this week, when the European Tour stages the Shot Clock Masters, a superb idea designed to rid golf of the curse of slow play which is now getting completely out of hand.

It is dismal to see so many golfers, particularly younger pros, thinking it is fine to take forever to hit their shots, and equally dismal to see the authorities taking so little action to speed things up.

But in Austria this week players will have 40 seconds to hit their shot or be penalised one stroke. It is a truly marvellous idea and hopefully this rule will be standard for all tournaments worldwide before long.

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It has been the words of racing fans that have really illustrated why Denmania was such a thrilling phenomenon.
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