Denman fallout adds to Gold Cup intrigue

Former Cheltenham hero will prove the real McCoy at Festival, insists Nicholls
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The Independent Online

Among the various inconvenient truths suggested by their mortifying first encounter, the sport as a whole may yet discover a consolation unavailable to Tony McCoy and Denman.

On the face of it, admittedly, their spectacular falling out on Saturday could only jeopardise the marketing momentum previously guaranteed by an impending showdown with Kauto Star. But while the odds between the horses themselves have unmistakably altered, there are now fresh questions to address – and the answers, at Cheltenham next month, may ultimately stimulate greater curiosity still.

There were roadshows, scarves and rosettes already predicated on Denman outclassing five inferiors at Newbury. In recruiting McCoy to their cause, moreover, Denman's owners had seemed to do their bit. As one of them, Paul Barber, remarked in the parade ring beforehand, it only seemed right that the champion jockeys of Britain and Ireland should be riding "the two best horses in the world". (Ruby Walsh, given the choice as stable jockey to Paul Nicholls, has remained faithful to Kauto Star.) As things turned out, however, McCoy's involvement has given the Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup an unexpected new dimension.

Only a brute as big and brawny as Denman would have kept his feet at all, after wrestling through the fourth-last fence, but there was no way back when he ripped the next one apart as well. And even as he slithered out of the saddle, McCoy will have braced himself for a bruising that would not be absorbed through the seat of his breeches, but in a far more tender region.

For some will tell you that the most prolific jump jockey in history, with credible claims to being the toughest, and the hardest to beat, is not even the best of his own generation. Until now, that debate has been confined to Aintree, where he remains tormented by that one, aching omission in his CV – and, no doubt, by the terrific National record of Walsh, his great friend and rival. But when McCoy was appointed to ride Denman, those who questioned his credentials did not do so solely out of sympathy for Sam Thomas, who won the 2008 Gold Cup on Denman when still working for Nicholls.

Tom Segal of the Racing Post, probably the most respected tipster in the business, suggested that McCoy would not have been his first choice, nor his second, third or fourth. He fearlessly questioned the way McCoy presents his mounts to a fence. And now this happens.

The chances are that Denman was not himself. He was already struggling to see off Niche Market, who would have been 34lb better off in a handicap, when he made that first mistake. McCoy himself suggested that his mount lacked aggression going into the fence, that he was never really lengthening or dominating. It would be no surprise were Nicholls to try him in blinkers when Denman resumes work.

Yes, Walsh's quieter style was seemingly showcased an hour later when Master Minded produced a breathtaking leap over the same fence that first jolted Denman. But then Walsh, in turn, was all but catapulted out of the saddle by a massive blunder at the last.

Walsh enthusiastically blamed himself. The degree of accountability in either case is a matter for debate. The only certainty is that for AP McCoy to win the Gold Cup on Denman, after such a ghastly audition, will require him to introduce to a new audience the mastery, of temperament and technique alike, that has long qualified him as one of the Turf's authentic greats.

Nicholls was studiously playing down the whole affair yesterday. "AP did absolutely nothing wrong," he said. "I spoke to him this morning, and told him not to think he had. The mistake four out could have happened to anybody. AP will ride him at Cheltenham, and you'll see a different horse. Denman ate up last night, and is 100 per cent sound this morning. I was very happy until four out. He landed awkwardly, went out to the left, and the race was over then. There are a couple of things to remember – he's a month off being anywhere near as good as he was in the Hennessy. And it was a trial, not the real thing. I think you'd have found, if he'd jumped the fourth-last, he would have picked up and won."

Nicholls did so anyway, Walsh just collaring Niche Market on Tricky Trickster. Both duly advertised their John Smith's Grand National claims, albeit also to the handicapper, who unveils the weights tomorrow.

Aintree is on the agenda for War Of Attrition, who produced a rejuvenated performance over hurdles at Navan yesterday. This is the last horse to have won the Gold Cup from outside Ditcheat – but the sport can still promise everyone that there is nothing remotely monotonous about the monopoly since.

Turf account: Chris McGrath


Harry The Hawk (2.50 Catterick)

Still needs to brush up his jumping but well handicapped on his Flat form and shaped well on his return from a break at Musselburgh.

Next best

Straboe (2.10 Wolverhampton)

Landed a gamble at Yarmouth last summer and caught the eye on his first start since, comfortably sharing a strong pace before fading.

One to watch

Oldrik (P J Hobbs) can look tricky but merits respect for his effort in the big handicap hurdle at Newbury on Saturday, staying on for fifth after being hampered early.

Where the money's going

Shakervilz, part of a treble on the card for Willie Mullins, is 25-1 from 40-1 with Coral for the Irish Independent Arkle Trophy after his success at Navan yesterday.