It says a lot for the jump racing faithful that more than usual of them turned out at the top of a rainswept Devon hill on a chilly, gloomy midweek afternoon just to watch a horse not compete in a race. The draw was Denman, brought along to Exeter for a day out by trainer Paul Nicholls ahead of his seasonal comeback in the Hennessy Gold Cup 17 days hence at Newbury.
The massive gelding is a notoriously difficult athlete to condition at home, a strapping individual who does no more than he has to when work is not for real. An exercise such as yesterday's, inducing attention and tension, serves to sharpen both mind and body and though Denman had to sing for his supper by being present as his owners Paul Barber and Harry Findlay opened a new building that bears his name, Nicholls was happy to go along with the anthropomorphism.
He was also pleased with his charge's performance and condition as he galloped a circuit of the undulating track under Ruby Walsh, accompanied by stablemate Beshabar. Last season, after heart problems, Denman never really sparkled physically; yesterday, though rendered dark and sleek by rain, his liver chestnut coat had a healthy tone depth and his muscles a bull-like bulk.
The nine-year-old had to be given a couple of focusing slaps by Walsh as he rather loped round the soggy course but despite his apparent lethargy he soon had Beshabar on the stretch and pulled easily clear, without being asked much, on the run past the grandstands. "I didn't want a serious gallop today," said Nicholls, "just a day at the races to tighten him up all round and this has been ideal.
"Last season was dreadful, nothing much went right with him but he's so much stronger this time and we've been able to get on with him properly. He's so much better when he's heavier and can work. He did a really good piece of work on Saturday when we put the gun to his head properly but he always goes better at the track than at home and I was pleased to see him pick the bridle up coming up the straight here. He's a different horse to last year and this will all have done him the world of good."
It was at Exeter as a novice that Denman started the unbeaten run of nine steeplechase victories that culminated in last year's Cheltenham Gold Cup, hence his celebrity status there. He launched his first senior season with victory in the Hennessy under top-weight, which he will have to carry again. "We brought him here and did the same sort of thing back then," said Nicholls. "He's got to start somewhere, and he loves Newbury and is unbeaten there. If he runs to his Gold Cup form he'll be hard to beat and all being well he'll take the same route afterwards, to the Lexus Chase in Ireland."
The Nicholls conveyor belt is starting to crank up in earnest; the trainer's Manor Farm team took three of yesterday's six prizes at Exeter on an afternoon when ability to cope with testing conditions was key, with chasing debutants Inchidaly Rock and Take The Breeze and novice hurdler The Minack.
At the weekend he will unleash another of his stable stars in earnest when Master Minded turns out at Cheltenham on Sunday in the new Connaught Chase, for which nine were declared yesterday. The dual Champion Chase hero's rivals may include last term's runner-up for the two-mile crown, injury-plagued Well Chief. On the same afternoon in Ireland the Champion Hurdle favourite Hurricane Fly is scheduled to make his eagerly-awaited seasonal debut at Punchestown after a satisfactory workout yesterday morning.
Plans for those who competed at the Breeders Cup continue to emerge. Dar Re Mi, who proved herself Europe's best middle-distance filly with her third in the Turf against males, will remain in training as a five-year-old, as will another of her sex, the sprinter Fleeting Spirit. But the colt Mastercraftsman will not race again; the son of Danehill Dancer, winner of the Irish 2,000 Guineas and St James's Palace Stakes and fourth in the Mile at Santa Anita, is to join his sire, this year's champion-elect, at Coolmore Stud.
Turf account: Sue Montgomery
Thumbs Up (3.10 Bangor) Returns to novice company and a course and distance over which he has won before.
Recif De Thaix (2.20 Warwick) Showed a good attitude to win his bumper and although he faces more experienced rivals on his chasing debut, will know his job.
One to watch
Though not the biggest cheese in his yard, Maska Pony (G Moore) looks certain to win over hurdles once stepped up in distance.
Where the money's going
Harry Tricker was cut two points yesterday to 6-1 favourite by Paddy Power for Sunday's Greatwood Hurdle at Cheltenham.
Chris McGrath's Nap
High Jack (1.20 Warwick)