Chris McGrath: McCoy perfect match for Denman

Inside Track
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The Independent Online

They have long been obvious Valentines. But Tony McCoy and Denman have had to wait until today for that first tryst and, to be frank, it's little more than a quick lunch. They should get through the Aon Chase at Newbury with their knees barely touching under the table. We'll only find out next month, at the great carnival of Cheltenham, whether they are truly made for one another.

McCoy rides Denman because not even Ruby Walsh – accustomed to having the best of all possible worlds, as he cherry-picks the champion stables of Britain and Ireland – can ride two horses at once. Asked to commit early between Kauto Star and Denman, in their Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup showdown, Walsh was only ever going to choose one horse. So it is that he must reconcile himself to a receding view of Denman's rump today, as McCoy finally makes the acquaintance of a champion whose strengths seem so compatible with his own.

Any envy Walsh may feel will be nothing compared to that of Sam Thomas, however decorous his public comment since confirmation that McCoy would be given the ride. Thomas won the 2008 Gold Cup on Denman, and second in 2009 was an unexpected bonus after the horse's pulmonary problems that winter. The only time anything has gone wrong between the pair was in his next start at Aintree, when Denman took that uncharacteristic fall.

By that stage, however, Paul Nicholls had transparently lost confidence in Thomas, who has since sought pastures new with Tom George. That left the owners of Denman perfectly within their rights to stoke up his engine with the most indefatigable jockey in history. And, being aware that Denman has rather more quirks than is generally understood, they were anxious for McCoy to get to know his mount before the Festival.

When Walsh rode him in the Hennessy here in November – only the third time they had teamed up since winning the 2007 RSA Chase at the Festival – his biggest anxiety proved to be getting Denman to co-operate at the start. And his first observation on pulling up was that the great brute might be better still in a pair of blinkers.

McCoy, of course, has long been celebrated for his ability to make up a horse's mind and, despite one or two commendably courageous heresies in the trade press, Denman (2.30) will surely respond eagerly to his new partner's belligerent style. Certainly, he should have no problem seeing off five inferiors here, and McCoy would be relieved to settle for an uneventful first date.

It is a momentous afternoon for Nicholls, regardless, as he also saddles Master Minded (3.40) in the Totepool Game Spirit Chase, his first start since that defeat at Cheltenham in the autumn. Master Minded was subsequently found to have cracked a rib, and Nicholls has warned that he will only be 80 per cent fit as he limbers up for a third Queen Mother Champion Chase. But 80 per cent of his best would be more than enough to deal with his rivals, among which Fix The Rib will doubtless be a popular forecast choice.

Gary Moore, trainer of Fix The Rib, seeks a remarkable third consecutive success in the Totesport Gold Trophy – last year's running having been lost to snow. Harry Tricker showed himself eligible for a race of this type when beating all bar Khyber Kim at Cheltenham last time, and that has since been made to look strong form. But so it needs to be, if Harry Tricker is to cope with a 12lb higher mark. This is a desperately competitive race, but at least odds of 33-1 are in your favour with Arch Rebel (3.05). He has one or two very flashy bits of form to his name on the level, and a spin round Leopardstown last time – his first run in a couple of months, and he wasn't knocked about when short of room – should leave him primed to make the most of a lenient hurdles rating.

It is a big weekend for the novice chasers. Diamond Harry tests his RSA Chase credentials in the opener at Newbury, while a couple of the better Irish types are in action at Navan tomorrow. Most intriguing of all, however, is the exotic drop in distance taken by Long Run at Warwick today. Having thrashed a very good field over three miles on his British debut, at Kempton on Boxing Day, today he whizzes two miles round one of the sharpest tracks in the country. He is supposed to be a bit special, and so he will be if he can cope happily with that.

Nicky Henderson, his trainer, yesterday described the venture as "a whim" but reasoned that in the conditions Long Run would have an easier Festival prep over two miles than three – win, lose or draw. As things stand, the horse apparently remains "99 per cent certain" to step back up in distance for the RSA Chase.

Henderson added that his other big candidate for that race, Punchestowns, may yet be given another run at Ascot next Saturday. At this sensitive stage of their careers, he knows that these are critical judgements. He must also suspect that his novice chasers are superior to any saddled by Nicholls this winter. And while the succession remains a remote prospect for now, the Kauto Star- Denman axis cannot last for ever.

Unlike diamonds. (Apparently.) For the moment, anyhow, McCoy will be out to make a lasting impression.

The leading ladies may meet after all

This is getting crazy. The big match between those alpha females, Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra, is suddenly back on. On Thursday, connections of the latter had archly refused the $5m (£3.6m) carrot dangled by an ambitious racecourse in Arkansas. By moving the Apple Blossom Stakes just six days, however – to 9 April – the track yesterday seemed to prompt an abrupt change of heart. It's hard to tell, though. The whole thing is becoming more like Fischer-Kasparov every day.

Turf account: Chris McGrath


Fredo (2.0 Newbury)

Raised 5lb for another improved effort at Wincanton last time and can find improvement up to three miles for the first time.

*Next best

Vertigo On Course (9.20 Wolverhampton)

Every time she runs, she hints at some postponed fulfilment and perhaps this radical step up in distance will prove the solution.

*One to watch

Immense (Ian Williams) Improved when second stepped up to three miles at Huntingdon on Thursday.

*Where the money's going

Nacarat, last year's runaway winner, is 5-1 favourite from 8-1 with Paddy Power for the Racing Post Chase at Kempton a fortnight today.