Only the inveterate polemicist will insist that he knows which is best of the two; and only the incorrigible gambler will want to back that judgement with hard cash. But these, in fairness, are venial failings. And some attempt must duly be made to resolve a dilemma that continues to defeat even those closest to Kauto Star and Denman, the stablemates whose showdown at Cheltenham finally brings 12 months of simmering anticipation to the boil.
By now their respective assets have been examined so thoroughly as to seem threadbare, compared with their first, unfamiliar bloom. To reiterate, then: Kauto Star has been beaten only once in the past two seasons, and then in the most excusable of circumstances; and even that is once more than Denman during the same period. Timeform, the most authoritative arbiters of these matters, suggest that any horse beating Kauto Star in the Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup must achieve a rating they have not used in four decades. Yet nobody in the yard that houses them both would be remotely astonished if Denman pulls it off.
There is no doubt that the particular demands of the race are ideally tailored to the rugged, relentless style of Denman, whose metronomic rhythm seems entirely unaffected by the need to get from one side of a fence to the other. He jumps without breaking stride, and gallops without mercy. If Sam Thomas decides to make the running, Denman will surely demoralise most of these by halfway.
Not that Kauto Star would be at all impressed by that stage. Having proved himself scarcely less adept over two miles, they can hardly go too fast for his liking. But what happens when those still clinging to Denman fill their lungs for the final ascent to the post? That is where the race will take its defining shape. Kauto Star will presumably still be travelling with his usual gusto as he makes ground through the field. But while the revs remain constant, what will be happening to his petrol gauge?
Those who believe that Denman can stifle Kauto Star's brilliance nurse a suspicion that he will not relish a brutish test of stamina. They say he owed his success in the race last year to a leisurely gallop, which left him enough in reserve to settle it with his turn of foot.
But Kauto Star has proved his staying power in other arenas, too. His second success in the King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day, admittedly over a bare three miles on a flat track, was not just a matter of glitzy speed. Galloping ruthlessly clear in the straight, he left the strong impression that the outcome would have been precisely the same if they had gone another lap.
Neither horse is likely to get away with a one-dimensional performance today. Denman can no more rely solely on brute power than Kauto Star can on raw speed. Both bludgeon and rapier will be required. And while Denman has yet to approach the perimeters of his talent, backing him requires a generous assumption about their extent.
Only in genuinely testing ground might dourness alone suffice. In fairness to Denman, even the sole defeat of his career – a fine second over hurdles on good ground here at the Festival – confirmed his essential class. Conditions yesterday were essentially neutral, rather tacky perhaps, but significant rain would definitely work in his favour.
In principle, it is not at all anomalous to state that Denman is the more likely of the pair to win by a large margin, but that Kauto Star is the more likely to win, full stop. If Denman wins, it will be because he has managed to break Kauto Star's spirit, in which case he might well go clear up the hill. If Kauto Star wins, it will because he manages to cut down his rival in full cry.
They are both short prices. If you must back one, then you can hardly choose the one that demonstrably needs to improve. Denman represents a leap of faith; Kauto Star, the gold standard. That is good enough for Ruby Walsh, and should be good enough for anyone else.
Of course, racing being the exasperating game that it is, something is bound to intrude upon the symmetry of the big showdown. Perhaps one of them will unseat his rider at the first. Or perhaps Exotic Dancer will overcome a troubled preparation, and fulfil the guarantee he seemed to offer at Haydock in the autumn – namely, that his strong finish in this race last year, when hampered by a loose horse, would be dangerously surpassed this time.
Given his recent problems, however, the best each-way candidate may instead be Halcon Genelardais, who has been freshened up by his in-form trainer since that heroic weight-carrying performance in the Welsh National. The narrow winner, receiving 21lb that day, has since defied a higher mark in another valuable handicap.
The loss of Wednesday's card ensures that punters have no shortage of opportunity elsewhere if they resolve to take a purist's interest in the main event. Sweet Kiln (12.30) sets the standard in the opener, while Willie Mullins and Ruby Walsh can win two of the novice hurdles: Fiveforthree (1.05) thrashed an easy subsequent winner on his hurdling debut, while Uncle Junior (2.50) is exactly the sturdy type required for this extreme test.
Both handicap hurdles can also go to the Irish: Roman Villa (next best 5.20) was clearly not himself last time but has long appealed as an ideal type for the helter-skelter of the last, while TAKE YOUR MARK (nap 1.40) looks value at 25-1 stepping back up in trip. Enlightenment (4.40) remains unexposed over fences, after just three starts, and seems to have been laid out for this target, while Franchoek (2.15) meets several with potential but has plenty of runs already on the board.
Experts' predictions for the Gold Cup
CHRIS McGRATH 1. Kauto Star
3. Halcon Genelardais
SUE MONTGOMERY 1. Kauto Star
3. Neptune Collonges
HYPERION 1. Kauto Star
Hyperion's TV Tips
1.05 A noon check on the going is vital, with last night's forecasts varying over how much rain would fall. Perhaps there will be another shock in this novice hurdle like last year's 20-1 winner Massini's Maguire. RAZOR ROYALE won over course and distance in soft ground in November but has failed to repeat the feat twice since – both times fading up the hill after cruising into contention. The last time was when a five-length fourth to Aigle D'Or. The selection is now 3lb better off with that rival – plus a first-time tongue-tie. At 28-1, he has an each-way chance.
1.40 Song Of Songs has crept into this race on a lenient weight. A fine-looking specimen, he has been campaigned with a big prize in mind – but there would be concern that further rain could put the distance of this contest beyond the limits of his stamina. The fancy prices for Leg Spinner have long been snapped up and the value appears to lie elsewhere. The 16-1 offered for JUNIOR is certainly inviting. Representing a trainer-jockey team at a brilliant peak right now, this five-year-old finished with a flourish into sixth in a two-mile handicap at last year's Festival. He clearly needs today's trip, handles soft ground and had an ideal "prep" race when just beaten at Huntingdon last month.
2.15 FRANCHOEK, bought for an undisclosed sum by J P McManus in December, should repay a fraction of that by lifting this £68,000 first prize, though dark horse Silverhand could threaten if not too inexperienced.
2.50 LODGE LANE has loads of ability but some waywardness too, seen when swerving while very much in contention in last year's Bumper here. Significantly, Barry Geraghty has now been recruited to be his first professional rider.
3.30 KAUTO STAR can defend his crown.
4.05 David Bass, very much an up-and-coming point-to-point rider gets a fine opportunity to impress a wider audience on the useful pointer THE MAN FROM HIGHWORTH. At 10-1 this one certainly attracts.Reuse content