Denman basks in Friend's glory
Success for Nicholls' horse is a reminder of threat posed by Kauto Star's Gold Cup rival
This was not so much about What A Friend, as absent friends. Sir Alex Ferguson, for instance, had made a wasted journey here the previous day, when the racecourse disappeared under fog – forcing a 24-hour postponement of the Lexus Chase. Then there was Paul Nicholls, who likewise remained on home soil yesterday, to saddle Big Buck's at Newbury. But while both Ferguson, as joint-owner, and Nicholls, as trainer, were suitably honoured in their absence, the reputation of neither could be appreciably altered by yet another bauble. Instead almost all the reflected glory of What A Friend's eventual success was seized by Denman – a horse suddenly needing all the friends he can get.
Denman's comeback in the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury last month had implied that his third private duel with Kauto Star at Cheltenham in March might prove a legitimate decider. But then his stablemate raised the bar afresh at Kempton on Boxing Day. The ball was not just back in Denman's court, it was whizzing down the line.
So while Denman himself will be confined to one, pretty leisurely assignment before Cheltenham – at Newbury in February – at least he found a proxy here to prod the ball back over the net. For when Denman beat What A Friend at Newbury, he conceded 22lb without ever being remotely menaced with defeat.
Admittedly, What A Friend was flat out to win here, holding another British raider, Money Trix, by a diminishing half-length. But he had travelled with conspicuous comfort through the race, jumping energetically, and the narrow margin was simply indicative of his sloth in front.
Certainly, his jockey insisted that his partner had given his all. "The run-in did seem very long," Sam Thomas said. "But he had every chance to get out of it today, and he dug deep. People thought he was ungenuine in the Hennessy, when he wandered about going to the final fence, but he was just trying so hard."
It was Thomas himself who had passed the real test of character. His stint as understudy to Ruby Walsh, the stable jockey, had ended unhappily last season when he palpably lost Nicholls' confidence. Thomas was none the less asked to ride What A Friend at Newbury, and admitted himself vexed when the mount in the Lexus originally went to Barry Geraghty. The race's postponement prised open the door once again, however, as Geraghty was already committed at Newbury – and Thomas gratefully managed to extricate himself from obligations to his new boss, Tom George. He certainly made the most of his opportunity, though time will tell whether he can retrieve the mount on Denman himself, assuming Walsh sticks with Kauto Star.
"I was disappointed not to be riding the horse in the first place, to be honest, but I got the opportunity today," he said. "I need to thank one of Tom George's owners, Philip Nelson, for letting me get off his horse to come over here. Barry was due to ride, and he has a lot of experience around here, but everything happens for a reason and the gods must have been looking down on me. Thank goodness for the fog!"
At Newbury, Nicholls professed himself "really chuffed for Sam" and credited him with a fine ride, but was not getting carried away by the horse, who would still have "an enormous amount" to make up on his two famous stablemates at Cheltenham. Aintree and Punchestown are likely to top his agenda instead. It proved a disappointing race for the hosts. Joncol, in fairness, was still in front approaching the last, having seen off Notre Pere, but he started hanging on the run-in and had to settle for bronze. Cooldine, meanwhile, was soon exhausted on his return, in what had become pretty demanding ground.
On a stygian Dublin day of low cloud and icy rain, at least the Irish managed two positive contributions to an exceptionally vague Smurfit Champion Hurdle scene, from Solwhit and, albeit only in a mares' hurdle, Voler La Vedette. Both are likely to return here next month for the Irish Champion Hurdle.
As for Big Buck's, he saw off Diamond Harry in even worse conditions at Newbury and Nicholls acknowledged that he looks "bomb-proof" in the defence of the Ladbrokes World Hurdle at Cheltenham – for which he is now 4-6 favourite with the sponsors. "He's not always the most straightforward and I was worried it would turn into a tactical nightmare," Nicholls admitted. "But he keeps so much in the locker and just does enough. I'm not sure he really enjoyed the ground, and he looks rock-solid after that."
Diamond Harry is likely to seek sanctuary in novice chases. Funnily enough, it was the presence of Kauto Star and Denman in his stable that helped drive Big Buck's back over hurdles. As What A Friend showed, there are always other fish to fry.
Turf Account: Chris McGrath
King Of Defence (9.20 Kempton)
Has taken well to polytrack, chasing home a flourishing rival at Lingfield last time after being caught behind a slow pace. Runs off the same mark and had previously proved himself effective round here.
Bertoliver (7.20 Kempton)
Showed signs of revival over an extra furlong last time, managing fourth despite being hampered early. Best over this trip, he is now down to a lower mark than for his last win at Chester in August.
One to watch
Carlitos (N A Twiston-Davies) laid solid foundations over hurdles last season and shaped well on his chasing debut in a novices' handicap at Kempton on Boxing Day, going well for a long way before fading into fourth on his first start since April.
Where the money's going
Solwhit is 4-1 from 5-1 with Coral for the Smurfit Champion Hurdle after beating the former champion Sublimity at Leopardstown yesterday, and Charles Byrne's five-year-old is now joint-favourite with Zaynar for Cheltenham in March.
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