Chris McGrath: Denman can join Gold Cup greats

Inside Track

Who knows? It might even mean something. Perhaps we're getting better at everything we do with horses – breeding them, raising them, training them, riding them. Though it must be said that so flattering a conclusion sits pretty uncomfortably with our overall progress, or otherwise, in other fields of human endeavour.

And of course it may mean nothing at all. We might just be in the middle of an incredible run of luck. One way or another, anyhow, the fact is that we appear to be blessed as seldom before, in every discipline, with horses of vintage calibre.

The dust has barely settled on an epoch-making Flat season, one where even the unprecedented career of Sea The Stars was made to seem incomplete, a fortnight after his retirement, by Zenyatta at the Breeders' Cup. Not that the Americans are at all certain to make her Horse of the Year, with Rachel Alexandra's own feats against colts in mind. All this, mark you, within a year of Zarkava being retired with "nothing left to prove".

At least Goldikova – yet another filly – is sticking around in the hope of becoming the first ever triple Breeders' Cup winner. And then there is St Nicholas Abbey, already farther along the road than Sea The Stars this time last year.

After all that, you would have thought it might take longer than usual to adjust to the relatively dour tempo of jump racing. But it was the jumpers themselves who first seemed to establish a golden age, thanks to Kauto Star and Denman, the next-door neighbours who have shared the last three Gold Cups.

Tomorrow at Fairyhouse, moreover, a programme of three Grade One races features perhaps the most freakish talent ever to have emerged from bumpers, in Dunguib. And then there is Cooldine, whose novice success at the Festival identified him as the first authentic threat to Paul Nicholls's present stranglehold on the Gold Cup.

Of course, to charge such fragile animals with so momentous a collective responsibility is to ask for trouble. Sure enough, the three biggest guns in the champion trainer's care have cost him sleep on three consecutive weekends.

First there was the reappearance defeat of Master Minded, who will miss his scheduled trip to Sandown next Saturday while connections seek to establish why he was hanging at Cheltenham. Then there was that desperate duel for Kauto Star himself at Haydock last Saturday, one Imperial Commander was unlucky to lose.

Nicholls ended up comforting himself with the notion that his champion needed the run. Perhaps the same fear contributed to his suggestion that Denman will probably be running for "fourth or fifth" when making his own comeback in the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury this afternoon. Not that Denman especially needs any such excuse, under such a big weight, and comparing his profile with the one he brought into this same race two years ago.

Then he was a new, irresistible force. As today, he carried 11st 12lbs, but this time he runs off a 13lbs higher mark, and in the meantime he has been through a season that would certainly have left an indelible mark on less robust creatures. After recuperating from a pulmonary problem, he resurfaced at Kempton in February and had his rump flayed by Madison Du Berlais. Somehow he regrouped to see off all bar Kauto Star in the Gold Cup, but then he took that excruciating fall at Aintree.

Nicholls, who generally has a wholesome indifference to betting opportunities, admits that he has instead backed What A Friend at 12-1. Those odds have duly diminished since, perhaps with the help of that horse's part-owner, Sir Alex Ferguson. But What A Friend has yet to demonstrate that he has the stomach for the most exacting competition. Barbers Shop, another in demand ante post, must still address reservations about his stamina.

More rain may instead conspire in favour of an outsider, perhaps even one whose chance has ostensibly been ruined by Denman compressing the handicap. The minimum weight is 7lbs above Offshore Account's true rating, but he looks tempting at 40-1. Lightly raced, with a touch of class, he cruised through the National on his last visit to these shores – off a mark just 1lb lower than he must run off today – before fading late, and should make due improvement for a recent spin over hurdles.

Those who prefer a less speculative solution are recommended Killyglen, who quickly became the north's best staying novice over fences after joining Howard Johnson last winter. He ended up with a decisive success at Aintree, shaped nicely on his reappearance, and remains entitled to progress.

But the race owes all its character to Denman. For him to win this would require the sort of timeless show of class that would only corroborate this pervasive sense of privilege – something resonant of the very greatest names to decorate over half a century of the most venerable sponsorship in all sport: the likes of Burrough Hill Lad, under 12st in 1984, or Mill House, under the same weight in 1963.

The next two runnings, of course, were won under 12st 7lbs by Arkle himself, and he failed by only half a length to give 35lbs to Stalbridge Colonist in going for the hat-trick. Hmm. On second thoughts, let's just wait and see how Denman does, before we get too carried away...

Punchestowns and Bellvano cap Henderson's fine week

The biggest week of his season to date has worked out pretty well like clockwork for Nicky Henderson, who yesterday introduced two more glamorous debutants – over fences and hurdles respectively – at Newbury.

Punchestowns made an immaculate chasing debut, albeit that his three rivals were never going to put any kind of pressure on a horse beaten only by Big Buck's (the champion staying hurdler, who reappears on today's card) over timber last season. And Bellvano, a smart bumper performer last term, duly outclassed his remaining rivals after his chief rival, Henry King, fell two out. "He will be better in a better race, as they went no pace and he was keen," Henderson remarked.

Bellvano was given a quote of 8-1 for the Supreme Novices' Hurdle, while Punchestowns is as short as half those odds for the RSA Chase – even though his trainer is in no hurry to see him back over three miles. "I'm not saying he doesn't get it, but he is certainly not an out-and-out stayer," Henderson said.

Henderson has Barbers Shop in the big one on today's card but no less important is the reappearance of Binocular against Solwhit in the WBX Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle. "We are coming there first time out," he cautioned. "I think there'll be more to come as the season goes on."

Turf Account: Chris McGrath


Its Teescomponents (2.15 Newcastle) An inexperienced rider was given a 10-day ban for an ill-judged ride on her reappearance, but her strong finish promised plenty more progress from one still very early in her chasing career.

*Next Best

Wing Play (2.15 Lingfield) Up 5lb for a photo-finish success on his return to the all-weather, but the next three home have all won since. Produced late he could have more in hand again.

*One To Watch

Resentful Angel (Pat Eddery) seems on the upgrade at a modest level and finished best for third after getting behind at Lingfield during the week, clearly equal to her new rating.

*Where The Money's Going

Conduit is 9-4 favourite with Coral to end his career with success in the Japan Cup in the early hours of tomorrow morning. Sir Michael Stoute's four-year-old has won consecutive renewals of the Breeders' Cup Turf, as well as a St Leger and a King George.