Chris McGrath: Denman turns crawl into parade to ensure Gold Cup will be no promenade for Kauto

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).

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - Junior / Middleweight

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: One of the South East's fastest growing full s...

Guru Careers: Marketing Manager / Marketing Communications Manager

£35-40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing Communicati...

Recruitment Genius: Commercial Engineer

£30000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Estimating, preparation of tech...

Recruitment Genius: IT Support Technician

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will work as part of a smal...

Day In a Page

Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor
The ZX Spectrum has been crowd-funded back into play - with some 21st-century tweaks

The ZX Spectrum is back

The ZX Spectrum was the original - and for some players, still the best. David Crookes meets the fans who've kept the games' flames lit
Grace of Monaco film panned: even the screenwriter pours scorn on biopic starring Nicole Kidman

Even the screenwriter pours scorn on Grace of Monaco biopic

The critics had a field day after last year's premiere, but the savaging goes on
Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people used to believe about periods

Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people once had about periods

If one was missed, vomiting blood was seen as a viable alternative
The best work perks: From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)

The quirks of work perks

From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)
Is bridge the latest twee pastime to get hip?

Is bridge becoming hip?

The number of young players has trebled in the past year. Gillian Orr discovers if this old game has new tricks
Long author-lists on research papers are threatening the academic work system

The rise of 'hyperauthorship'

Now that academic papers are written by thousands (yes, thousands) of contributors, it's getting hard to tell workers from shirkers