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Denman defies his doubters with fresh Hennessy heroics

Nicholls' resurgent Gold Cup contender shrugs off heart problems in style

For all the attempts to market this sport for its betting, celebrity- spotting or all-day drinking opportunities, there was a gladdening cameo here yesterday which showed that priorities are still right. At the post-race prizegiving for the Hennessy Gold Cup, a hand was invited for the winning owners, Paul Barber and Harry Findlay. It came instantly, in the form of prolonged applause, cheers and roars of approval, straight from hundreds of hearts.

But what the gratified-looking man on the mike had not spotted was that at that exact moment, on the other side of the parade ring, the real hero of the moment, Denman, was being led past the faithful who had poured from the grandstands to salute the astonishing performance they had just seen. The ovation was not for the men, the farmer and the pro punter, but for their magnificent horse.

It was Denman's second victory in the valuable handicap chase under the crushing top-weight of 11st 12lb, but under circumstances so different from those of two years ago. Then, he was the rising young star; this time round, after a season blighted by the effects of a heart problem and a crunching fall last time out, he had it all to prove.

But despite everything stacked against him, the massive nine-year-old's class – he did, after all, win the Gold Cup last year and was second behind his stablemate Kauto Star in March – and his strength and will brought him home. Ruby Walsh took the initiative on the liver-chestnut juggernaut with a circuit to go, leaping to the front over the water jump opposite the grandstands. By the turn in, his relentless gallop and power though the air – his leap at the cross fence, five out, was particularly decisive – had most of his 19 rivals, to whom he was conceding 12lb and more, struggling in his wake. The most dangerous of them proved to be another Manor Farm resident, What A Friend, who came to join issue at the last of the 21 obstacles.

Denman, though, gained two lengths in flight and ran arrow-straight towards the line as the rather less resolute What A Friend wavered. The distance between them at the line was 20lb and three-and-a-half lengths, with a similar gap to Niche Market and Barbers Shop, split by a short-head. Ironically, Denman's erstwhile rider Sam Thomas was in What A Friend's saddle, and was the first to congratulate his colleague.

"He stuck his head down from off the bend," said Walsh of the gelding, backed to start as the 11-4 favourite, "and typically ground it out. I was glad to be on him and not watching him. Beforehand, I have to admit I didn't think it could be done. I thought his class would get him into third or fourth. But sometimes it's great to be wrong." It was a weight-carrying handicap performance of the highest calibre, to be talked of alongside those of Burrough Hill Lad and even Arkle in the same race. And it was one that put a quaver in the voice of his normally rather matter-of-fact trainer, Paul Nicholls.

"For him to do this after all he's been through makes this a special moment," he said. "I am so proud of this horse, and for the whole team behind him. We knew he was back to his best physically – he made Big Buck's go a bit over five furlongs the other day – but you never know how trials and tribulations can affect them mentally."

Kauto Star, who showed his own bravery by inching home at Haydock last week, remains favourite at 2-1 to win his third Gold Cup, but by the end of the day Denman was running him close in the market. "They just are two wonderful horses," added Walsh, "who keep racing in the public eye for all the right reasons."

A year ago Big Buck's caught the eye in adversity, a faller at the last under Thomas in the Hennessy when much-fancied and in contention. Now, reinvented as the best staying hurdler in these lands, he started his road to a repeat in the World Hurdle with little more than an exercise canter under Walsh in the Grade Two marathon. A slight stumble as he landed over the last was the only blip as he cruised round in third gear to defeat the trailblazing Lough Derg by seven lengths.

The six-year-old is now odds-on in some places to take his second title in March, but the market for the Champion Hurdle was blown wide open yesterday after the Irish raider Go Native sprinted home at 25-1 in one of the key trials, the Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle. Noel Meade's charge led home Sublimity and Solwhit, with the odds-on Binocular fifth.