Chris McGrath: Pandorama holds golden chance to upstage Denman on his date with destiny

Inside Track

Even for the big horse, it's a big ask.

In itself, demonstrably, 11st 12lb is not an issue for Denman. Allegedly a thoroughbred, he is built like a buffalo bull. And he carries exactly the same weight, in his historic quest for a third Hennessy Gold Cup, as he did in 2007 and 2009. But while Denman himself can hardly know as much, what he really shoulders at Newbury today is the burden of history.

Not just because he is attempting something without precedent. In tandem with his contemporary and next-door neighbour, Kauto Star, his whole career has become a sign of the times. Improved facilities and practice among trainers and veterinarians have apparently made it possible for modern chasers to hold back the years. But there is a difference between longevity and immortality. So long as they remain flesh and blood, sooner or later even "the Tank" will yield to some erosion of willpower or physical capacity.

Paul Nicholls, who has kept the flame so bright in both Kauto Star and Denman, reckons both as good as ever this autumn. Each long ago passed safely through a crossroads that might have proved a dead end in times past. Nicholls himself suspected the game was up for Denman in February 2009, when he returned from a pulmonary problem with a listless defeat at Kempton.

But the handicapper computes that he has only progressed since. Having taken his first Hennessy off a rating of 161, Denman won last year off 174, in the process conceding 22lb to What A Friend – subsequently winner of two Grade One chases. Now he is up to 182, a ceiling without parallel since the exploits of Desert Orchid some 20 years ago.

Nicholls takes the view that Denman's task is no harder as a result, because only five of the other 17 starters are in the handicap. In theory, however, at the weights he must produce the best performance of his life on the cusp of his 11th birthday.

Now that's not impossible. Certainly, you could not discover any incipient decline in his last public appearance, when hopelessly disoriented by the track at Punchestown in April. We know he adores Newbury, and that he is especially effective when fresh. But conditions may well prove inimical to his cause, after another night under the frost blankets. There were some very tired finishers on dead ground yesterday. And the bottom line remains that he has won once in seven starts since the 2008 Cheltenham Gold Cup.

One of his rivals, mind you, has raced only once in 35 months. The man who trains both none the less identifies Taranis as the big danger to Denman. Taranis was so impressive when surfacing at Cheltenham in January that Nicholls gave him an each-way chance in the Gold Cup, only for another setback to intervene. As such, he looks dangerously handicapped off 10st 4lb, and he has excelled in his preparations.

The best value, however, concerns an Irish raider as many as 8lb out of the handicap. None of the others lurking down there, certainly, has as much right as Pandorama (3.05) to develop into a Gold Cup horse. Beaten only once under Rules – in a novice hurdle, by the top-class Mikael D'Haguenet – he contested just three chases in his novice season, missing the Cheltenham Festival with a pulled muscle. But he still managed to squeeze in two Grade One wins, reaching a new peak on his first start over three miles when rallying to beat the subsequent Festival winner, Weapon's Amnesty.

Here, then, is a top-class staying chaser in the making who has hitherto disclosed only the tip of the iceberg. This will be the first time his stamina has been properly examined and, as a great big brute himself, Pandorama does not look the type to let Denman bully him. True, he was withdrawn from an intended spin round Down Royal when mysteriously found to have a nosebleed at the start – he is thought to have banged his head in the stables – but Noel Meade has always been pretty invincible at this time of year. Cheltenham in March has sometimes been another story, admittedly, but this morning may conceivably prove the last time you can get 33-1 against Pandorama for the Gold Cup.

A superb card is further decorated by the reappearance of the two best hurdlers in Britain, Big Buck's and Binocular. Switched back to timber after unseating his rider in the Hennessy two years ago, Big Buck's is unbeaten since and will presumably outclass his rivals at short odds, just as he did last year. (Assuming, that is, the injured Ruby Walsh's intimacy with his quirks is not critical.)

Binocular, the champion over shorter distances, was diverted here – along with the Stan James "Fighting Fifth" Hurdle – from snowbound Newcastle. Nicky Henderson lobbied hard to get the race to his local track, so let's hope he keeps his promise to help drag off the frost blankets, with racing now scheduled to start at the ungodly hour of 11.55 am.

The Seven Barrows trainer has been electrified by Binocular's schooling and the North's rising star, Peddlers Cross, now has to come south to his backyard. But Binocular is all about speed, and in the taxing conditions the last laugh may yet go to Peddlers Cross (12.35).

For while this is a day for big names, and big horses, above all it's going to be about big hearts. That, in fairness, has always been Denman's forte. He will put it all on the line, as always. But he stands perilously on a threshold between his own past, and posterity.

Nicholls and McCoy 'gutted' after injury to supersub Fehily

Though Tony McCoy had already been asked to replace him on Big Buck's today, and is the obvious man for Kauto Star at Kempton on Boxing Day, there was no mistaking the despair he felt on behalf of Noel Fehily at Newbury yesterday. At 35, Fehily had in recent weeks suddenly found himself riding some of the elite jumpers in the land. Now he was on his way to hospital with a suspected broken wrist, which is expected to keep him out until well into the new year.

Fehily, of course, had only gained his opportunity to impress the trainer Paul Nicholls when his stable jockey, Ruby Walsh, broke his leg at Down Royal earlier this month. But Fehily had seized his chance so persuasively that he had already been booked to ride Kauto Star in the William Hill King George VI Chase.

"It doesn't half bring you down, this game," McCoy said, shaking his head. "It was horrific for Ruby, in the first place, and it's horrific for Noel. Because he was getting a chance, and showing everyone that he's a brilliant rider. He's always been very good, we all knew that who have been riding against him for years. But that is jump racing. You can never, ever take anything for granted."

Nicholls concurred. "I'm just so gutted for Noel," he said. "It's unbelievable. I suppose AP [McCoy] would be the obvious man for Master Minded at Sandown next weekend, because he's ridden him before. But he does have a job, so we'll just have to take it day by day."

At least the episode put some perspective on earlier reverses for the stable through Dolatulo, turned over at 1-4 in the opener, and Celestial Halo, the 2009 Champion Hurdle runner-up, who again "hated" fences on his second start over them and will now be restored to hurdles.

Turf Account: Chris McGrath


Stoney's Treasure (1.30 Newbury)

Fast-tracked to a handicap for his debut over fences when reappearing at Fontwell, and easy to see why as he jumped and travelled really well before fading as though in need of the run. Left on the same mark here, he can sustain his stable's better form since.

Next Best

Mill Side (12.55 Newbury)

Lightly raced for a horse of his age and the form of his reappearance success at Doncaster last season worked out very well, leaving him well handicapped off a mark just 5lb higher. Clearly goes well fresh, and his new stable could hardly be going on better.

One to watch

Vagrant Emperor (Emma Lavelle) went like a well handicapped horse on his reappearance at Newbury on Thursday, simply unfortunate to bump into Tony McCoy on a heavily backed, race-fit favourite. Had a hard race to finish clear but can defy a higher mark once freshened up.

Where the money's going

Totesport introduced Smad Place to their JCB Triumph Hurdle betting at 12-1 after the French import's 27-length success on his debut for Alan King at Newbury yesterday. Coral, meanwhile, dismiss raiders Joshua Tree and Dandino at 20-1 and 25-1 respectively for the Japan Cup, early tomorrow.

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