As the crowds poured into Leopardstown yesterday, an immaculate rainbow spread over the racecourse. They would see nothing during the afternoon to discourage the belief that gold might yet be found at both ends.
It may prove an illusion, of course. But the success of Denman in the Lexus Chase, efficient as it was, preserved the impression that Kauto Star's most lustrous rival is stabled in the very next stall to his own. The road ahead remains precarious, as always. But their showdown in the Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup is such a celestial prospect that even routine comparisons with Arkle and Mill House, Arkle and Flyingbolt, cannot cheapen the sense of privilege in those who hope to witness it.
The man who trains them both, Paul Nicholls, will be made to endure plenty of inane inquisitions between now and March, but he recognises that his singular fortune can be shared by the whole sport. Denman's performance this time, admittedly, did not have quite the same swagger as that of Kauto Star at Kempton on Boxing Day, nor indeed of his own reappearance at Newbury last month. But this was a very different kind of race, and Denman has unmistakably absorbed some kind of magnetism from his mighty neighbour.
A defeat over hurdles at the Cheltenham Festival remains the only one of his career Nicanor, his conqueror that day, makes his own debut over fences at today's meeting and this was ostensibly his biggest test yet. In the event, it proved a pretty silly race. It seemed to last a fortnight. Daryl Jacob, perfectly sensibly so far as the needs of his mount were concerned, set such a slow pace on The Listener that Ruby Walsh sent Denman past almost at once and for the next two miles the six runners might have been pulling a cortege.
Perhaps not even Kauto Star would have bolted clean away from rivals that had consumed so little of their energy, and Walsh had to get fairly firm with Denman to maintain a lead of four lengths to the line. But the 4-9 favourite was never even in fleeting danger, with Mossbank staying on best of his pursuers to deny The Listener second in a photo.
Predictably, any instinct towards caution was not shared by Harry Findlay, the ebullient professional gambler who owns Denman in partnership with Nicholls's patrician landlord, Paul Barber. "Some people won't be impressed, but they're mad," Findlay exclaimed. "I've never seen a horse so clever in the air. When he got close, he was deadly. He's just awesome, and against Kauto at Cheltenham the three miles two [furlongs] is going to be all in our favour. Our horse will be tanking mid-race."
Nicholls, who believes that Denman needs to keep improving to close the gap on Kauto Star, assessed the performance rather more soberly. "It was what I expected really," he said. "He doesn't do a tap in front, and Ruby says this is a hard track to make all. But I knew he would gallop all day and whereas he knew he had a race at Newbury, he's hardly blowing here. He just hacked along with his ears pricked. The better the race, the better he will be."
He will never run in a better one than that which finally pits him against his neighbour. Ladbrokes offer 5-4 against Kauto Star, and left Denman on 2-1. But Michael Hourigan, trainer of Mossman, suspects there may not be much between them, declaring: "Pound for pound, I would say that was as good a Gold Cup trial as you saw at Kempton."
Each must negotiate one more run before Cheltenham. Nicholls has been considering a race at Ascot in February for Kauto Star, while the Aon Chase at Newbury and the Hennessy Gold Cup at Leopardstown are also in the equation for Denman. Nothing, he emphasised, has been set in stone. But nor does any of this feel like a mirage.
Ebaziyan has Hardy rival to test mettle
They call it the Celtic Tiger, but a more fitting emblem for Ireland's economic boom might be the Hibernian Hurdler. Only one British horse has even made the frame in the last three runnings of the Smurfit Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham, and the Irish have meanwhile been dominating the novice races at the Festival, as well.
At the moment, however, they cannot seem to find the steeplechasers that should by all logic come pouring through these same breaches. The final two days of the Leopardstown Christmas meeting have distilled the situation perfectly. Yesterday, the Irish mustered just two runners for their biggest steeplechase of the winter, against four from Britain. Today, however, they reiterate the ongoing strength of their hurdlers, with the next crop of challengers measuring their progress against that most enduring of benchmarks, Hardy Eustace.
It was only seven days ago that the dual champion, on his 36th start and the cusp of his 11th birthday, tried three miles for the first time, but here he is dropping all the way back to the minimum distance for the Bewleys Hotels December Hurdle. Last weekend's experiment at Ascot proved only a qualified success, Lough Derg giving him the slip from the front, but Hardy Eustace had shown that he retains all the fight of old when forcing Afsoun into submission on his reappearance at the same track.
With his wily rider sure to dictate terms to just five rivals, Hardy Eustace will no doubt prove hard to pass. His task was simplified when Sizing Europe, who broke into the big time when coshing Osana at Cheltenham last month, failed to appear among the declarations yesterday, having scoped poorly. That horse certainly remains on the shortlist of value bets for Cheltenham, but so, too, does Ebaziyan, who is confidently expected to go close in March despite a fairly anonymous season so far.
Having needed his first run, and been wrong for his second, Ebaziyan ran sweetly for a long way before failing to stay two and a half miles in heavy ground last time. Though he is now out to 33-1, Willie Mullins is undoubtedly training him to peak at the Festival, where he was so impressive last season. If Hardy Eustace gets the anticipated easy lead, all he needs to offer here is a reasonably purposeful finish.
Helens Vision has that look of value
Not that all is lost for British hurdlers. The Ballymore Properties Challow Hurdle at Newbury this afternoon looks so strong that a decisive winner would surely set the standard in the same sponsors' championship race at the Festival. The three most interesting runners are Elusive Dream, whose earlier form has worked out too well for anyone to be worrying about that disappointing run in desperate ground at Cheltenham; Souffleur, dazzling at Aintree and caught out in a tactical race last time; and, unpatriotically favoured in the hope of value, Swordsman (2.40).
A stout German pedigree and a subtle German trainer are combining to provide this curious animal with belated fulfilment. His journey has been so long and winding that he once ran in a Grade One race at Belmont for Wayne Lukas, but he finally came of age when thrashing Gauvain by 13 lengths at Huntingdon last month. The runner-up has since won impressively at Exeter, albeit over a shorter trip, and is rated good enough by his trainer to run here as well. Swordsman is unproven on soft ground but should, in principle, be ideally suited by the stiffest test of stamina he has encountered.
The conditions will certainly not trouble Helens Vision in the previous race. Smart in bumpers last season, this mare made a stunning start over hurdles in heavy ground at the Hennessy meeting here, coasting home 27 lengths clear of a subsequent winner. Though she faces several promising sorts from powerful stables, the present obscurity of her trainer, Helen Lewis, means that HELENS VISION (2.05 nap) may be overpriced.
Mighty Moose (3.10) betrayed his inexperience over the big fences at Aintree last time, but his profile is so progressive that it is worth taking a small chance on his stamina in the Bathwick Mandarin Chase. Channel 4 also screens three races sponsored by Totesport at Musselburgh, site of an eye-catching British debut from Kalahari King (2.20).