Denman and Kauto Star locked in battle for Gold Cup favouritism

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The Independent Online

Every instinct suggests that learning the difference between Kauto Star and Denman could also define a golden epoch in steeplechasing history. Only the daily hazards of their calling can temper the euphoria created by the two horses on successive Saturdays. Can such slippery paths possibly converge at Cheltenham in March with the heightened stakes still intact? Their own luck will have to hold, and with it the collective fortune of British racing.

Housed in adjacent stables, they canter daily up the same Somerset hill, and there now seems little doubt that they also share the same uncommon brilliance. Certainly it is hard to imagine even Kauto Star, restored in every opinion by his performance at Haydock the previous week, dealing any more ruthlessly with the multiple hardships that seemed to menace Denman at Newbury on Saturday: top weight, first time out, in one of the most competitive handicaps in the calendar.

For all they have in common, however, they remain divided by a mystery that even those closest to them cannot decipher until they finally meet, in the Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup.

After dislocating a shoulder 16 days ago, Ruby Walsh has now missed two auditions critical to his choice between the pair. It is hoped that he will be back to ride them in their next engagements: Kauto Star in the Stan James King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day, and Denman in the Lexus Chase at Leopardstown two days later. But if the reputation of each horse survives Christmas week undiminished, how can Walsh decide between them with anything approaching confidence?

For Paul Nicholls, their trainer, perhaps the biggest bonus of the past nine days is the fact that the owners of either horse will now be perfectly content with Walsh's deputy. Sam Thomas has seized the opportunity created by the stable jockey's injury with heroic assurance, and yesterday he rode another three winners for the yard.

Blue Square offer 4-7 that Walsh stays loyal to Kauto Star in the Gold Cup, and 6-4 that he favours Denman. In Coral's outright Cheltenham market, however, Denman relatively a monster of a horse, in physical terms is now as short as 6-4 from 4-1, with Kauto Star 2-1 from 11-8.

It fell to Paul Barber, their trainer's landlord and co-owner of Denman, to reiterate the pitfalls that litter the road ahead. "Being in the farming industry, and looking after animals all the time, I know there's so much that can go wrong between now and Cheltenham," he said. "The horse does seem to be improving, though, so it's very exciting."

Predictably, the man who completes their oddball partnership, Harry Findlay, was rather less circumspect. The professional gambler reckons that Kauto Star is more vulnerable round Cheltenham. "Everything is in our favour there," he said. "And if it comes up soft or heavy, then we are a certainty."