Should Denman prove up to carrying top weight in Saturday's 51st Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury, he will join a club so elite as to have just the four members. And the names of the first three to join are a reminder of the measure of the task that faces the young pretender to the staying chasing crown.
Mill House took the valuable three-and-a-quarter mile contest under 12st in 1963, Arkle in the following two seasons under 12st 7lb, and Burrough Hill Lad under 12st in 1984. All did so as the reigning Gold Cup king. Denman has much more in common with Trabolgan, successful two years ago. Like him, he contests the race as a seven-year-old, will carry 11st 12lb and is running for the first time since winning the novices' staying crown, the Royal & SunAlliance Chase at the Cheltenham Festival. Trabolgan was racing for the fifth time over fences; it will be Denman's sixth start over the bigger obstacles. It is to be hoped the comparison ends there, for Trabolgan injured a leg shortly after his Newbury triumph and has not been seen in public since.
The Paul Nicholls-trained liver chestnut will start favourite on Saturday, as did Burrough Hill Lad 23 years ago. Since then, punters have inadvisedly put most of their faith in just four top weights: By The Way (11-4, fell), Charter Party (5-1, pulled up), Garrison Savannah (6-1 joint, pulled up) and Dubacilla (3-1, seventh). Winning market leaders are not themselves uncommon, though, with four (Celestial Gold, Strong Flow, Ever Blessed and Suny Bay) in the last 10 runnings. If ever a horse was built to carry weight, it is Denman. He weighs in at 587 kilos and stands 17 hands, probably eats tacks for breakfast (he has been described by Nicholls as "a hard bastard") and may not even notice Sam Thomas on his back. Certainly, the man of the moment (the 23-year-old, substituting with a vengeance for injured Ruby Walsh, carried over his weekend's walk-on-water form on Kauto Star and Mr Pointment to a victory on Quarry Town at Ludlow yesterday) has few doubts.
"He worked well at Exeter on Tuesday," said the jockey. "He's well and although it's his first run of the season, there's no reason why he can't go and run his race. I'm really looking forward to him and after the weekend that's just gone it's just amazing to have a ride like him."
Denman is generally 4-1 to take the Hennessy, with Abragante – to whom he must concede 22lb – second market choice. The David Pipe-trained six-year-old, who was strongly fancied for the recent Paddy Power Gold Cup before missing the cut, was an easy winner of a good Wincanton contest on his seasonal debut last month.
Though Willie Mullins-trained Be My Royal passed the Newbury post first five years ago, he was later disqualified (contaminated feed meant he failed a dope-test), leaving Bright Highway in 1980 as the latest winner from Ireland. The challenge from across the water is perceived as being headed this time by Snowy Morning, who will be aiming to set the record straight for Mullins. The seven-year-old chased Denman home at Cheltenham in March and has an 18lb pull in the weights to help him turn around a 10-length deficit.
As is increasingly usual on a Saturday, the top class entertainment will be spread across the country. Less than an hour after Denman presents his credentials as a Gold Cup contender – he is currently second favourite to his stablemate Kauto Star – the spotlight will switch to Newcastle, where a clutch of Champion Hurdle hopefuls line up for the Fighting Fifth Hurdle.
There will be potentially more than a Grade One victory and a decent prize on the day at stake; the two-mile race is the first leg of a treble, completed by the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton and the Cheltenham title itself, that offers a £1m bonus to a horse who can will all three.
At the front of the queue is Katchit, the leading British-trained Champion Hurdle hope. The little four-year-old, beaten only once in nine hurdle starts, will be taking on his elders for the first time and his trainer Alan King admits that, in the event of victory on Saturday, the financial carrot (offered by betting exchange WBX) may prove too hard to resist, against his better judgement.
"He's improved for his first run this season," said King, " And if he wins at Newcastle, he'll go to Kempton as we'll have to chase the bonus. But if he gets beat it won't be the end of the world, as it means he can run at Cheltenham in a couple of weeks' time, which is where I really want to go."
* The race-fixing trial involving jockeys Kieren Fallon, Fergal Lynch and Darren Williams at the Old Bailey was adjourned yesterday due to a jury member being ill. The trial, which began on 8 October, restarts this morning. Fallon, Lynch, Williams, brother of the jockey Shaun Lynch, professional gambler and former owner Miles Rodgers and barman Philip Sherkle all deny charges of conspiracy to defraud Betfair punters. Rodgers also denies concealing the proceeds of crime.
Nap: Ola Du Sulon(Kempton 2.55)
NB: Moor Spirit (Sedgefield 2.10)Reuse content