Alner's emotive victory adds drama to The Listener's bid to topple Denman

Bearing in mind their general reluctance to follow the script a trait familiar to every punter British steeplechasers are certainly going to unusual lengths this Christmas to maintain a narrative that is coherent, orderly and utterly engrossing. First there was the seismic performance of Kauto Star at Kempton on Boxing Day. Now it falls to Denman, stabled in the very next stall to his own, to come up with some kind of plausible rejoinder.

It is as though Kauto Star is insisting on his rights,demanding satisfaction of his rival. And while no duel will take place before Cheltenham in March, Denman must certainly respond to the challenge in the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown today. Judging from what we have seen so far, he will want to do so like the most arrogant of seducers.

But wait. What's this? Like any expert storyteller, the horses are contriving a third, complicating strand, one that could yet exalt a meeker character far beyond the brash egotism of Kauto Star and Denman. For the principal obstruction to Denman today is The Listener, whose trainer could supplant even Paul Nicholls the man who has both Kauto Star and Denman in his stable of champions as the abiding name of this racing Christmas.

After all, it is already one of the most respected in the game. Robert Alner is a trainer of great skill and, more to the point, a decent, unpretentious man. Seven weeks ago, Alner was severely injured when his car left one of the twisting lanes that girdle his farm in deepest Dorset. He remains in intensive care in a Bristol hospital, and the likely extent of his recovery cannot be known. He is 64, and all that can be said with certainty is that it is going to be a slow, arduous business.

But yesterday, only a few miles from his bed, he was set the best of examples by one of his own horses. Miko De Beauchene's success in the Coral Welsh National was wrought from precisely the same blend of courage and fortune that will be needed in Alner's own battle of attrition.

One by one, over three and a half miles in testing ground, Miko De Beauchene and last year's winner, Halcon Genelardais, had broken the will of their rivals. Approaching the last, Halcon Genelardais seemed to be gaining the upper hand but then lost momentum with an awkward jump. With a 21lb weight concession in his favour, Andrew Thornton sensed a new opportunity and, after a grim duel to the line, Miko De Beauchene got up in a photo.

Like all the horses in his stable, the winner is now in the care of Alner's wife, Sally, and assistant, Nick Mitchell. Though a down-to-earth countrywoman with a horror of self-pity, Sally has been touched by the depth and breadth of concern for her husband and struggled to camouflage her emotions afterwards. Interviewed on television, she turned to the camera and said: "I'd just like to send a message to Robert: I'm sorry I won't be there tonight, but I've got to drive the horsebox. I'll be there tomorrow."

Though the stable often houses Gold Cup horses, it remains a family operation, and the sense of kinship extends to its jockeys. "We all wish Robert could have been here saddling the horse, but there is no better tonic for him than this," Thornton said. "Coming to the last I thought I had one more roll of the dice, and the horse just kept on going for me. He's very gutsy, very tough and, just like his trainer, very genuine."

Thornton's affection for Alner was unshaken even when The Listener's owner, this time last year, requested his replacement by Daryl Jacob. Very talented, if still rather green at the time, Jacob is in turn devoted to the Alners. He certainly achieved an immediate har-mony with The Listener, getting him into a great rhythm to beat Beef Or Salmon by eight lengths in the Lexus last year.

The Irish stalwart had previously won the race three times, and is back for another helping on the cusp of his 12th birthday. But it is The Listener who is now in his pomp, who now has everything that once divided Beef Or Salmon from the rest. Admittedly The Listener had the soft going he adores when thrashing Mansony at Punchestown on their reappearance, but steady rain was falling with the dusk in Dublin last night and conditions could yet turn in his favour overnight.

Denman, of course, has already shown himself at home in testing ground, obliterating his rivals for the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury last month. True, the runner-up there was pulled up in the Welsh National, whereas Mansony had won a Grade One race at Leopardstown half an hour earlier. Regardless, The Listener palpably represents a fresh test of strength for Denman. Presumably it will all boil down to which has the better scriptwriter.

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