Chris McGrath: Denman successful return unlikely to be solace for out of favour Thomas

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The Independent Online

Racing has spent much of 2009 in a state of suspended animation, thanks to the weather, but the emphasis has certainly been on the suspense. Indeed, the very fact that Denman should suddenly find himself running at Kempton today itself borrows something of the unease pervading his journey back to Cheltenham next month. Increasingly, it has become a saga of tension, prevarication and improvisation. And that is just the question of his jockey.

More pertinent to Denman's defence of the Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup, no doubt, is his recuperation from the pulmonary disorder diagnosed, and promptly treated, after he returned to training at the end of the summer. All concerned seem utterly sanguine on that account, admittedly. But it undoubtedly places his reappearance at Kempton in an engrossing context.

Paul Nicholls, his trainer, has long had this afternoon on Denman's schedule, but anticipated taking him to Newbury, for the Aon Chase. That race was abandoned yesterday morning, however, only for the authorities to promptly devise an alternative elsewhere.

Paul Nicholls, his trainer, would be relieved to get the horse out today, because you suspect he would not want him to soak up a comeback race one minute closer to the Festival. Nowadays Nicholls never seems more comfortable than with a fresh horse, and the theory that Denman gains fitness by increments must be placed against that swaggering success, first time out last season, in the Hennessy Gold Cup. Any significant postponement of his return, indeed, might well have persuaded Nicholls to send Denman straight to the Gold Cup.

Even so, Nicholls may not be wholly comfortable with the way things have worked out. For Kempton seems likely to prove far less congenial to Denman than to his stablemate, Kauto Star, who won his third consecutive King George VI Chase round there. At Cheltenham last year Denman wrested the Gold Cup off Kauto Star simply by maintaining that murderous tempo of jumping and galloping. This much sharper track is a rather different proposition. Presumably Denman will still be able to turn the screw on inferior rivals, but may deserve more latitude than he is likely to receive from punters awaiting the return of the king with bated breath.

Clearly his most competent rival is Albertas Run, who bounced back to form when getting closest to Kauto Star here at Christmas. That performance confirmed him to be equally proficient round right-handed tracks, whereas Denman has been known to hang left. Having said that, Albertas Run will also be less comfortable with testing conditions today than Denman. As such, Albertas Run could yet be entitled to persevere to Cheltenham even if Denman today confirms himself still very much in his pomp. And that might raise intriguing questions of his jockey, Tony McCoy, whose putative candidature to ride Denman at Cheltenham has even succeeded in distracting people from the glacial approach of his 2,999th and 3,000th career winners. The debate over the continued eligibility of Sam Thomas, who won the Gold Cup on Denman last year, has become thoroughly undignified. But while it is perfectly natural for the young jockey to take refuge in the convenient delusion that the media are to blame, he must know the truth to be very different. The hoopla over his riding, when standing in for the injured Ruby Walsh before Christmas, could be traced almost entirely to Nicholls himself. It seems far-fetched to imagine, as many do, that Denman's connections have already made some clandestine arrangement with McCoy, or anyone else. As stable jockey, Walsh is not going to choose between Kauto Star and Denman until absolutely necessary. McCoy, meanwhile, would have a better idea of his obligations to Jonjo O'Neill after the rehearsals of Albertas Run, today, and Exotic Dancer, in the rescheduled Hennessy Gold Cup at Leopardstown tomorrow week. On both counts Thomas must fear the worst. Someone, somehow, is going to make sure that he is not the only possible candidate for the ride. And the poor fellow's standing at Ditcheat has diminished so palpably, since last season, that it is easy to imagine Nicholls agonising over a perceived conflict of duty. To Thomas, he owes common decency; to his patrons, however, he owes a guarantee that their horses will be trained and ridden to their utmost advantage.

This winter Nicholls has repeatedly disclosed his reservations about Thomas. At least one of his training rivals feels that he has behaved deplorably. Of course, Nicholls could point the finger elsewhere. He could say that all these pundits, have placed Thomas under such intolerable pressure that it would not be fair to expose him to the cauldron at Cheltenham.

Nor would that be wholly disingenuous. For if Thomas's confidence is destroyed, the practical consequences are the same. Once that happens, it takes a very uncommon type of man to keep the faith. And a still less common type of trainer.

Confidentiality to give Scoop6 bet full exposure

The Byzantine construction of the Scoop6 may not be to everyone's taste, but the bet has undeniably come of age. It reaches another milestone today when the winners of a £1.5m rollover last week have the chance to add another £2.5m from an engorged bonus pool by identifying the winner of the 3.35 at Lingfield.

Admittedly you might be rooting for an unemployed miner rather more heartily than for the syndicate who find themselves in this extraordinary position. As it is, envy and voyeurism are among the ingredients that will doubtless help sell the bet in the age of "reality" television. For what it may be worth, Confidentiality (3.35) probably deserves pardoning her recent failure over a shorter trip at Wolverhampton.

If you could choose your bonus race, however, you might sooner opt for Pearl (12.45) at Kempton or Maletton (2.0) at Ayr. Venetia Williams, still in top form, sends the latter on the long journey north on his own – a hint, perhaps, that he might be back to the form he previously showed in her care, off higher marks.