Denman deserves accolade of a true champion

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The Independent Online

By arriving with so many precarious, contradictory hopes, racing cannot hope to leave any Cheltenham Festival in unqualified self-congratulation. This time, however, grounds for satisfaction were such that only its most constant vice – a weakness of perspective – averts downright smugness.

There was barely a syllable of dissent, for instance, over the handling of an unexpected crisis on Wednesday morning, when racing was abandoned because of high winds. By acting responsibly and lucidly, the management were rewarded with stoicism from 55,000 disappointed customers.

In turn, the windfall of extra races on Thursday and Friday went down well with all bar the merchants in the shopping village, who lost lucrative idling time to the pesky racing. The resulting experience was so intense – and represented such value for money – that it revived a degree of nostalgia among those who still resent the extension of the Festival to a fourth day. It is supposed to be a banquet for gourmets, not gourmands, but this way everyone was happy.

The management of the racing surface itself was also handsomely vindicated. Risk can never be eliminated from any sport where competition stretches physique to the limit, but this year horses and riders alike surely walked away in unprecedented safety.

That will be cold comfort to connections of Whispered Promises, who fell fatally in the Coral Cup on Friday. But it places in due perspective the hysteria that infected judgements after that grim November afternoon, when Paul Nicholls lost two young horses in barely an hour – one of which nearly killed Ruby Walsh into the bargain.

Ah, Nicholls and Walsh: two modern masters, and central figures in the drama that reflected best of all on their sport. As a professional gambler, Harry Findlay depends on the probity of sport for his livelihood and there were some precious words among the millions gushing from his lips after Denman – the horse he owns in partnership with Paul Barber – had bludgeoned Kauto Star into submission in the Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup.

Findlay marvelled that the champion's downfall could be openly plotted within his own camp. The horses' contrasting tactical requirements were public knowledge and nobody, at any stage, had the slightest doubt that it would be a clean fight.

But all this still left that one, abiding failure, the one lesson racing never seems able to learn. For novices to the sport were told that the odds against two such steeplechasers emerging from the same yard were of epoch-making rarity. In the next breath, they are now being invited to accept that both have now been surpassed by yet another horse in the same stable.

It is, in fairness, a defensible submission. Master Minded, after all, had the Queen Mother Champion Chase sewn up by halfway. It was already quite obvious by that stage that nothing else would be able to live with him. But how very fitting that Walsh was wearing the very same silks as he does on Kauto Star.

What does the sudden exaltation of Master Minded – since anointed by the official handicapper with the highest rating of any steeplechaser in the 10 years he has been in the job – tell us about the rigour of our judgements on his stablemates? As it happens, the Gold Cup worked out perfectly well, in terms of the claims made for it in advance. It produced an authentic monster, one that would surely beat most modern winners of the race. But perhaps the simultaneous glory of these different champions – Denman, Kauto Star, Master Minded – will finally shame us into a worthier admiration.

For it is only when you discover the limits of a champion that you can properly grasp its claims to greatness. Too often, the assumption is made that there are no limits. And, of course, no champion gets respect that way. Quite the opposite, in fact. The haste of men, instead of inviting ridicule upon themselves, often ends up undermining the horses instead.

So let racing learn from Denman himself. Did any horse ever jump or gallop with less complication, less embroidery? Let him be honoured the way he deserves to be honoured. He is not going to come up with a cure for cancer, or bring peace to the Middle East. But wherever and whenever he does discover his limitations, he will be no less a horse than he is now.

* Today's jumps meeting at Lingfield was abandoned yesterday as the course is waterlogged.

Chris McGrath

Nap: Mganga(Wolverhampton 5.00)

NB: Greystoke Prince (Wolverhampton 4.00)

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