Chris McGrath: End of the road for 'The Tank' Denman
Trainers and jockeys sometimes talk affectionately of horses that "would gallop through a brick wall for you". By the same measure, Denman would have pulverised the Matterhorn.
But the champion known as "The Tank" has ultimately proved no less dependent than any other steeplechaser on each of the minute cogs that together support and galvanise his monstrous physical capacity. Sure enough, the discovery of a "tiny" tendon injury yesterday prompted his trainer, Paul Nicholls, to end a career that had set the gold standard for some of the most vaunted jumpers of the modern era.
One of them, Kauto Star, is famously housed in the very next stall, and their public rivalry in turn condensed the emergence of a yard in rural Somerset as the most powerful in the land. But the very fact that a caterpillar track has finally broken loose should remind everyone how all the great equine careers are one part brilliance, and nine parts constitution. That may be most obviously true over jumps, but John Oxx always said that it was only his robust physique that allowed Sea The Stars to stand the training – and racing – that elevated him to a different level on the Flat.
Denman was never out of the first two at six consecutive Cheltenham Festivals. Second over hurdles in 2006, he blew apart the best novice chasers the following year and was scarcely less merciless to Kauto Star himself in the 2008 Gold Cup. Those were heady days, and it must be remembered how everyone enjoyed his oddball ownership, then divided between Harry Findlay and Paul Barber. Both men served the game well at the time. Denman went on to finish runner-up in three consecutive Gold Cups since, and meanwhile compounded his status as best of losers when seeking his third Hennessy Gold Cup last season. Having won off 161 in 2007, this time he finished third off 182 while conceding 18lb or more to all his rivals. By that stage, his very involvement had come to lend an immediate epochal quality to proceedings.
For their mutual benefit, he will remain stabled next to Kauto Star. His disappearance from the public stage, however, heightens the sense of privilege and valediction now surrounding his neighbour's every move. Even a miracle of soundness like Denman, after all, has sometimes disclosed the frailties of their breed. After winning the Gold Cup, he was sidelined for several months with – of all things – a heart problem. It almost seemed as though he had been sent to show how even so giant a frame of bone and sinew will never contain the ardour that can evolve in nature.
But the same great flame can sometimes burn as bright even in the puny breast of mankind. The big handicap at Cheltenham today, for instance, is run as the Spinal Research Atlantic 4 Gold Cup – honouring four intrepid oarsmen rowing 3,000 miles between the Canaries to Barbados to raise funds for the eponymous charity. The race is sponsored by Andy Stewart, whose son is making an inspiring recovery from spinal injuries suffered in a snowboarding accident. Naturally, it also strikes a melancholy chord with a sport that daily exposes riders to parallel risks. Anyone who has witnessed Paul Stewart's progress, however, can testify that an indomitable will to win through is not confined to the sort of brutish survival instinct and sheer brawn that sets apart a creature like Denman.
After a couple of marrow-shuddering falls this week, it would be rather poignant to see Tony McCoy bounce back on Sunnyhillboy (2.30). Many had expected the champion to ride Quantitativeeasing, on topical grounds if no other, but he is paring himself down to a lighter weight for a good reason. Sunnyhillboy was breathing down Great Endeavour's neck here at the Festival last season, but while the winner has since soared 22lb in the handicap, he has inched up just 8lb. Moreover, Great Endeavour is set his third very tough assignment in four weeks, while Sunnyhillboy has just had a spin over hurdles to put him straight.
Another horse on a hectic programme is Overturn, whose joyous approach might have been borrowed from Denman himself. He does seem to thrive on hard work and as such it seems illogical to assume he will not see out the hill in the Stan James International Hurdle. That would seem a more pertinent question of Grandouet. In his present heart you would not want to desert Overturn (3.05). If he can hold out once again, you might even treat his performance as some sort of monument to Denman – and hope that their indefatigable example can be matched by those four young men, out there straining against the wind and waves.
Chris McGrath's Nap
Sunnyhillboy (2.30 Cheltenham)
Has long suggested he has a race like this in him, and looks primed for this one after an eye-catching return over hurdles. Still at the right end of the handicap, and McCoy is hungry to prove he made the right call.
Morning Moment (3.20 Doncaster)
Still on the upgrade and jumped superbly at Haydock last time, only reeled in late over an extreme distance, and brings far fewer questions than most of his rivals.
One To Watch
Gaspara (David Pipe) suggested she retains ability when returning from a long absence at Taunton on Thursday.
Where The Money's Going
Hinterland was laid to 9-1 from 10-1 with William Hill for the JCB Triumph Hurdle on the eve of his Festival reconnaissance at Cheltenham today.
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