Many who are saluting one of the modern steeplechasing paragons have been deceived into ascribing to Denman all the virtues they fondly associate with his calling. In their reckoning, his performance under top weight at Newbury on Saturday was as much a matter of grit as grandeur. The handicapper, after all, had already measured the gulf in class dividing Denman from his rivals. In a race as attritional as the Hennessy Gold Cup, he could only win by demonstrating a commensurate superiority in courage – by a determination not to allow his inferiors to profit from this brutish disparity in dead weight.
Well, they should try asking his jockey. Ruby Walsh's final observation before mounting up had been that he only had one worry – getting Denman to start the race. And the first thing he said, after driving him home, was that the horse would be even better in blinkers.
Which begs one, rather wonderful question: what on earth might this horse do, if he ever deigns to explore the full parameters of his ability?
It is one especially pertinent to Walsh himself, assuming both Denman and his famous next door neighbour, Kauto Star, reach the third leg of their private duel for the Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup. They have exchanged the trophy over the past two runnings, but on each occasion the runner-up was considered below his best by their trainer, Paul Nicholls. Walsh has so far shown fidelity to Kauto Star, but the opportunity to ride Denman for only the second time in nearly two years will have given him renewed food for thought.
When Walsh rode Denman at Kempton last February, he was running for the first time since winning the Gold Cup the previous March, and had been treated for a pulmonary problem. He was never really going that day. In contrast, he had begun his Gold Cup campaign with that first, effervescent success in the Hennessy, again under top weight. Little wonder Harry Findlay, the professional gambler who owns Denman in partnership with Paul Barber, had anticipated that he would know his fate early this time. After six fences, he reckoned Denman would either be 6-4 or 20-1. It did not turn out quite that way.
"He was probably more like 8-1 at that stage," Findlay said yesterday. "I had thought that if he was going to win, he would have to be taking a length out of them at every fence. But he wasn't doing that for the first mile. He wasn't really enjoying himself. But Ruby was so positive. With the way the ground was riding, he thought it would be impossible to come from a long way behind. And the way the horse warmed up was amazing. I was watching it again last night and there was a close-up of him approaching one of the later fences, and you can just see his eyes light up."
Anxious that Denman might get it into his head to plant himself, Walsh could be seen restlessly keeping him on the move as the field assembled at the tapes. "Denman has always been a real character," Findlay said. "In the paddock Ruby said the one thing he was most worried about was getting him to start. It was brilliant horsemanship, the way he rushed him up. I think he was worried the horse might pull up in that gallop at Exeter a few weeks ago. But it's been the same since day one. When he started winning all those races, I remember saying that the first time he'd get beat would probably be by refusing to race, or running out. If Paul Nicholls can get him to Cheltenham in one piece, I would say the biggest danger to Denman is himself."
Findlay entertained two extreme scenarios before the race. "If he finished seventh or eighth, he would probably never run again," he said. "And if he won, he'd be even money for the Gold Cup. And I reckon I was right, that's about what he is."
The bookmakers are not so certain, the sponsors persevering with Kauto Star at 7-4 ahead of Denman on 9-4. Kauto Star, having only scrambled home when making his own comeback at Haydock the previous weekend, will be making his customary trip to Kempton on Boxing Day. Denman, meanwhile, will have a low-key warm-up for Cheltenham in the Aon Chase back at Newbury in February.
A small field is guaranteed, but then that was the case when he first established his affinity with this track as a novice. Findlay is duly vexed that anyone should be concerned by a lack of runners in the valuable novice chases during the Hennessy meeting. "I'd watch a four-horse novice chase every day of the week," Findlay insisted. "You look through the history books and see how many good horses were unbeaten round Newbury. You saw Denman winning races like that round there, as a novice, and now you can see Punchestowns doing the same. And you wait and see what that horse is doing in a couple of years."
It was another great day for Nicholls, who also saddled What A Friend to chase home Denman and had already witnessed an easy reappearance success for Big Buck's. A year previously this horse had unseated his rider as Hennessy favourite, but he has since proved himself a champion stayer over hurdles. He could now meet the rising star in that division, Diamond Harry, at Ascot next month.
Sadly the weekend ended in anticlimax when a top-class card at Fairyhouse yesterday was lost to waterlogging. It is planned to reschedule the meeting on Wednesday.
A world apart, then, from the final appearance of Conduit's career, on firm ground in Tokyo for the Japan Cup. He ran creditably enough, in fourth, but never threatened the remarkable mare Vodka, who held on in a photo under the French ace, Christophe Lemaire, and so won her seventh Group One prize. Conduit will now remain in Japan to begin his stud career.
Now that really is something that might motivate a character like Denman. But he's not doing too badly, really, for a quirky, bone-idle gelding with a history of heart problems.
Weightlifters: Outstanding chasers in handicaps
*ARKLE 1964 and 1965 Hennessy Gold Cups, Newbury. The greatest of them all, twice shrugged off 12st 7lb.
*DESERT ORCHID 1988 Victor Chandler Chase, Ascot; 1990 Irish Grand National, Fairyhouse. Won a photo over two miles, giving 22lb to the runner-up; then romped home over three and a half, conceding at least 26lb all round.
*CRISP Second, 1973 Grand National, Aintree. The heartbreaker, collared close to home by Red Rum, a newcomer to the race who was receiving 23lb.
*CARVILL'S HILL 1991 Coral Welsh National, Chepstow. Gave later Grand National winner Party Politics 19lb and a 20-length hiding.
Turf Account: Chris McGrath
Command Marshal (4.10 Wolverhampton)
Returning to the all-weather off a lower rating than when last seen on turf. Excellent form over hurdles suggests he is in better form.
Count Boris (1.50 Fakenham)
Returns from a long absence but his new trainer has rekindled several other faded talents and this one is very fairly treated on his best form.
*ONE TO WATCH
Mith Hill (Ian Williams) bumped into an unusual talent at Newbury on Friday, in Lie Forrit, but pulled miles clear of a competitive field. Overdue a change of luck after a rough passage on previous start.
*WHERE THE MONEY'S GOING
Washington Irving, a smart horse on the Flat during his Ballydoyle days, is 20-1 with Totesport for the Supreme Novices' Hurdle after an impressive start over timber at Carlisle yesterday.