If history seems to beckon Paul Nicholls at every turn, it is partly down to sheer longevity. That is how Kauto Star finds himself favourite to win at Kempton on Boxing Day for a fifth consecutive year – when he will be ridden, as expected, by Noel Fehily. And that is how Denman could achieve his own piece of history with a third Hennessy Gold Cup in four years at Newbury on Saturday. Given all their time together, it surely counts for plenty when Nicholls says that both remain as good as ever.
All horses, inevitably, reach the bottom of the barrel sooner or later. But while Kauto Star and Denman are approaching their 11th birthday, Nicholls has yet to detect the faintest decline. "They'll tell me," he shrugs. "I don't have to look for it. Remember that See More Business ran in the Gold Cup when he was 13. To me, none of them will be a back number until they suggest as much on the track. I'm as happy with Denman as I have been for the last few years. It's amazing when you think back to the day he got beat at Kempton [in February 2009] after his heart problems. I must admit, I did think we were in trouble then. But he looks really up for it at the moment. With his rugs off, he looks A1, and his schooling has been good. Ruby [Walsh] rode him round the school six weeks ago and you should have seen the smile on his face. He said the horse hadn't felt so good in three years."
Walsh having in the meantime broken a leg, Nicholls has turned to Fehily for most of his better horses. And yesterday he confirmed that Fehily would ride Kauto Star in the William Hill King George VI Chase after getting a brilliant round of jumping out of Master Minded, in the same Clive Smith silks, at Ascot last Saturday. Denman, however, will be ridden on Saturday by Sam Thomas, as he was when he won his first Hennessy, and indeed the Cheltenham Gold Cup later that season.
Nicholls is unabashed that Denman runs off a rating of 182, as opposed to 161 in 2007, and 174 last year. "You could argue that it's not quite as difficult a task, because there are so many out of the handicap this year," he reasoned.
Of his four other runners, the champion trainer reserves his most conspicuous endorsement for Taranis, who will be returning from another long lay-off. His success at Cheltenham last January remains his only start in just under three years. "But that showed he goes well fresh," Nicholls said. "And 10st 4lb is a very nice weight. Of all the horses we worked last week, he impressed me more than any. He's a horse you tend to forget but, off that weight, I'd say he must be one of the big dangers."
He suspects that Neptune Collonges may be "just a bit too big and well" and so needs the race; Niche Market's priority is the John Smith's Grand National; while The Tother One runs by way of seeking refuge from having to carry big weights in smaller races. What a contrast to Denman, who shoulders big weights in massive races, and keeps coming back for more.
Andrew Tinkler will take the ride on Burton Port, winner of five of his six chases as a novice last season, for Nicky Henderson in Saturday's race.
Ginger Grey (7.35 Kempton) Another feather in David O'Meara's cap when scoring on his first start for the rookie trainer last month and, proven on this surface, can defy his new mark from a rails draw.
Douryna (1.40 Chepstow) Showed glimpses of form over hurdles for previous stable, and her modest rating could prompt a fresh start over fences for her flourishing new trainer, Colin Tizzard.
One to watch
Barafundle (Jennie Candlish) Was contesting only his third handicap when bumping into Grands Crus over hurdles at Haydock on Saturday and, last off the bridle bar the winner, finished clear of the rest.
Where the money's going
Irish raider China Rock, third to Kauto Star at Down Royal this month, is 14-1 from 20-1 with Coral for the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury on Saturday.