Chris McGrath: Has Gold Cup bout lost vital punch?

Inside Track

If we're not careful, all these wide-eyed converts are going to end up taking rather too literal a crash course.

The marketing men reckon that the heavyweight showdown between Kauto Star and Denman at Cheltenham next month can engage a whole new audience. This week they even arranged a photo call with David Haye, a man perfectly at ease with giant, grunting, hairy beasts after his bout with Nikolai Valuev.

As with all seductions, however, the more pulsating the anticipation, the greater the potential for disillusion. It's no good for racing to hitch up its skirts so provocatively, if it turns out that a couple of oranges have been tucked into its bra.

It is precisely the unpredictability of thoroughbreds, of course, that nourishes the seasoned aficionado. On Thursday, Zaynar lost his unbeaten record when sent up to Kelso to take on three horses at odds of 1-14. And last Saturday, infamously, Denman himself hit the deck at Newbury, at 1-6. Between them, these two debacles remind us that no guarantees accompany this great prizefight between Kauto Star and his stablemate in the Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup.

Certainly, Denman's mortifying introduction to his new jockey, the great Tony McCoy, was an unexpected puncture for the roadshow already scheduled for the next month. While it would arguably be as well for novices to go into the game with their eyes open, Denman and Kauto Star are scripted to fly the last upsides before pulling miles clear for a photo finish. Now, however, it would be fraudulent to deny that the odds are massively in favour of Kauto Star.

True, various redemptions remain feasible for Denman. They always do, until that moment when the people around a horse finally reconcile themselves to the reality that its fires have been extinguished. But how surprising would it really be for Denman to bomb completely at Cheltenham?

He has now taken two teeth-loosening falls in three runs, and his gung-ho style of racing – when physically and mentally on top of his game – means that he always has to be willing to approach the pain barrier, if not actually go through it.

It always seemed incongruous that a horse of such transparent commitment should have suffered, of all things, a heart disorder. After all, that dynamic performance in winning his second Hennessy had implied that he retained all his old bravura. But Ruby Walsh, disclosing the sort of dauntless insight that makes him so precious to Paul Nicholls, promptly suggested that Denman might benefit from blinkers.

The horse's compatibility (or otherwise) with McCoy seems a bit of a red herring, albeit it does no harm in selling the story. Even before his jumping imploded, McCoy had been alarmed by a deficiency of aggression in his mount. And after that mistake four out, Denman looked literally desperate as he took off at the next. It was as comprehensive and panicky a fall as you will ever see.

In any other hands, you would have to assume that Denman has not just reached a plateau but begun to slide down the other side. But Nicholls has repeatedly shown himself capable of renewing the energies of horses whose career profiles would seem irrevocably doomed in other yards. And he remains adamant that Denman will come out fighting at the Festival – where he is likely to be fitted, not with blinkers, but with a noseband.

Perhaps it is better, in the end, for newcomers to have acquired a sense of the sport's inner chaos than to perceive it as simply blue corner versus red. Perhaps some will even remember Tricky Trickster and Niche Market, who fought out the finish after Denman fell, when they line up among the favourites for the John Smith's Grand National.

Aintree is very much on the agenda in the Blue Square Gold Cup at Haydock today, albeit it would be hard to explain to anyone – never mind a beginner – how Mon Mome could run so execrably in the race last year and then romp home at 100-1 in the National. This time round he has so far shaped with more obvious promise, and a bold effort seems probable now that the Aintree weights are out. But Silver By Nature (3.35) remains unexposed, granted the combined challenge of long distances and heavy ground, and retains scope for still more improvement than he showed before hitting the last in the Welsh National.

Top weight at Aintree disguises a very fair rating for Madison Du Berlais, who returns to the type of flat track he needs at Wincanton – weather permitting. But Officier De Reserve (2.0) looks interesting on his first start for Venetia Williams, by no means exposed over fences and the sort to go well fresh.

Not that these animals can be recommended with any certainty after Denman and Zaynar put the form book through the shredder. Sooner or later the racing greenhorn will learn that his new pastime must always be a triumph of hope over experience. Once you get that far, in fairness, there's no way back. For this was also the week that gave us hunter chase wins, at Leicester on Wednesday and Kelso on Thursday, for Godfrey Maundrell and Val Jackson, amateurs aged 61 and 50 respectively. Once you get a proper taste for the game, you see, that's it. You're in for the long haul.

Henderson hopes to clear third hurdle without mishap

They say bad luck comes in threes and Nicky Henderson could be forgiven a sinking feeling about the scheduled appearance of his champion hurdler, Punjabi, at Wincanton today.

Having begun the week with three leading fancies for the Smurfit Champion Hurdle, Henderson had to rule Binocular out for the season on Wednesday and then saw Zaynar turned over at Kelso on Thursday. Had Wincanton been abandoned yesterday, the Bathwick Tyres Kingwell Hurdle would have been switched to Ascot – but that contingency will not be available should the track fail another inspection this morning.

"It'll be very annoying if Wincanton is off," Henderson admitted yesterday. "It's not exactly been a great week, but Punjabi is straighter than he was this time last year, having had a run at Haydock. The heavy ground will not suit him, but where else do you go?"

The trainer has developed no regrets about Zaynar's trip North. "If he'd gone to Cheltenham without that race, he definitely wouldn't have won the Champion Hurdle," he reasoned. "You've got to ignore the result. Punjabi got hammered in the Kingwell last year and won the Champion three weeks later."

With Celestial Halo going straight to Cheltenham, Punjabi's obvious danger is Starluck. Most effective on sharp tracks, Starluck would have been ill served by a switch to Ascot, so already things have conspired against Punjabi. But perhaps that is Henderson's third unlucky break now out of the way.

Turf account: Chris McGrath

Nap

Adams Island (3.00 Haydock) The latest horse to draw attention to the talents of Rebecca Curtis, this bargain buy could also be the one to take her to the next level judged on his impressive hurdling debut at Newbury.

Next Best

December Draw (3.35 Lingfield) Had just too much to do finishing fast over course and distance last time, confirming himself very fairly handicapped on some of his earlier form.

One to Watch

Native Coll (N W Alexander) returned from a long absence on an attractive mark at Newcastle the other day, and suggested he will soon take advantage with the benefit of that run, fading only in the closing stages.

Where the money's going

Oscar Whisky is 12-1 from 20-1 with Coral for the Spinal Research Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham next month after impressing at Sandown yesterday.

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