Denman vs Kauto Star at Cheltenham

They may be the greatest jump horses ever. Brilliant rivals, with utterly contrasting styles, they have shared the honours over the past two Cheltenham Gold Cups. Friday's clash is the Decider – will it prove to be the race of the century?

Very soon now, the nation will have to decide: between a clunking bruiser of undoubted stamina and his more nimble, photogenic and flashy opponent. And, in horse-racing, it doesn't get much bigger than this. That is the significance of this year's Cheltenham Gold Cup, which will be run across some of Britain's most gorgeous terrain as the highlight of the Cheltenham Festival this Friday.

To call it a two-horse race would be disrespectful to the equine Cleggs and Salmonds which also populate the Blue Riband field, but this is essentially about Kauto Star and Denman, quite possibly the two best jumping horses of the modern era.

We have been here before, and this is the decider. Kauto Star lost his crown to Denman in 2008 but regained it at his old foe's expense 12 months ago. Now comes the defining contest. It's the Rumble in the Jungle, the Thrilla in Manila and it's just a shame, for promoters, that nothing rhymes with Cotswolds.

In further boxing tones, there have been mock-up posters of the two protagonists, as well as real pictures of them eyeballing each other. For Kauto Star and Denman are no strangers off the track either. They both reside in the Somerset stables of multiple champion jump trainer Paul Nicholls. When these two meet prior to their blood-curdling encounters, they do not square up, wrestle or bump chests. They nuzzle.

This is not to say the Gold Cup is a jolly assignment. The Grand National may be the British public's idea of the ultimate jumps race, but those in the bosom of the sport prefer the near three and a half mile gallop around the picturesque foot of Cleeve Hill.

The chocolate-box geography belies the effect the Gold Cup has on horses. After his victory two years ago, Denman – "The Tank" as he is known at home – suffered heart problems that threatened his career, if not his very existence. Kauto Star does not run that often, a recognition of the fact that he is primarily preserved for under seven minutes of action in Gloucestershire each spring.

So, what of the home of these two heavyweights? Nicholls, his cheeks made almost cartoon ruddy by daily encounters with the pre-daybreak elements, trains out of Ditcheat in Somerset's Mendip district. You know you have reached Ditcheat when you travel down the A37 from Bristol to Yeovil and get lost.

But for Nicholls and his huge and talented string, Ditcheat could quite easily be a one-horse town. The village pub – the Manor House Inn – has become accustomed to dispensing either Butcombe or Hop Back Fuggles bitter when the many big-race winners are brought back home.

The pub clientele are confused about which of their heroes will return with the prize by Friday closing time. When Ditcheat's 747 inhabitants were polled recently – and this could be a harbinger of another hung parliament to come – 51 per cent supported Denman to Kauto Star's 49 per cent. "There's a real division among my regulars, but I'm in the Denman camp," says Simon D'Offay, the Manor House Inn landlord. "Whatever happens I'm sure we'll celebrate over a few pints."

Nicholls has been champion trainer at the Cheltenham Festival for the past four years and is the second most successful current trainer in the meeting's history behind Nicky Henderson.

The battle within the battle, and a further tantalising ingredient, is the that between the respective jockeys. Denman will be ridden by the indestructible Tony McCoy, the multiple champion British jockey, who is not made of flesh but the same material from which they construct wrecking balls. Kauto Star's partner is Ruby Walsh, who is as hard, and valuable in the saddle, as his name suggests. Off games, they are respectful opponents. In the saddle, they could happily slip a stiletto down their boots.

It has taken a long and winding road to bring the titans, human and equine, together. Kauto Star is a French-bred bay horse – an athletic and graceful animal – who came to the attention of several British scouts during a hurdles career in his homeland. He attracted the nickname of L'Extraterriste (the Extraterrestrial), which meant that buying him was never going to be a cut-price option.

So it was that Clive Smith, who made his money from developing and selling golf courses, had to diminish his fortune by €400,000 to buy the young horse. Not often can this sort of sum be paid for a gelding (which has no breeding potential) and it be considered a bargain, but then Kauto Star is not a horse who comes along very often. To date he has made more than £2m in prize money.

There have been palpitations along the way, though. Kauto Star rather likes the notion of demolishing the last fence of races he has apparently already won. This has earnt him the more modern soubriquet of "the White Knuckle Ride".

Denman – a snorting bull of a horse with awesome staying power – was bred by haulage contractor Colman O'Flynn at his farm close to Fermoy, Co Cork, after he decided it might be a nice idea to send his mare Polly Puttens to the stallion Presenting at neighbouring Rathbarry Stud. The young horse was due to be sold at the 2004 Tattersalls Ireland Derby Sale but was rejected because of his wind – a breathing rather than a digestion problem in the thoroughbred world.

Denman subsequently went into training with former jockey Adrian Maguire in Ireland and won his only point-to-point start at Liscarroll in 2005. He was then purchased for a reported £82,000 by Nicholls and Paul Barber. Barber now shares the horse with Harry Findlay, and they should really have renamed Denman "Chalk and Cheese".

Barber is tweedy and West Country and a dairy farmer. Findlay isn't. He is a professional gambler from High Wycombe who used to spend his time at the dogs – Slough, White City, Hackney – and then embarked on a more responsible life, betting in front of banks of screens and telephones at his Bath residence. Harry seems to know his horses, and even he thinks Kauto Star is a certainty.

What is without doubt is that this is a victory for racing. At 10 years old, both Kauto Star and Denman should be at the peak of their powers. They have been breathing billboards for National Hunt racing at a time when the sport continues to wither. Scarves in their respective colours are so popular that it is thought one in 10 people at Cheltenham will wear them.

Those who have had a bet have already been converted. But for others who retain a belief in the purity and brilliance of competition it is worth checking that a seat (plus a television) is available for 3.20pm on 19 March. Kauto Star vs Denman is probably as good as it gets for the pursuit of National Hunt racing, maybe for sport in general.

Arts and Entertainment
books
News
Dr Alice Roberts in front of a
people
Voices
Nigel Farage arrives for a hustings event at The Oddfellows Hall in Ramsgate on Tuesday
voicesA defection that shows who has the most to fear from the rise of Ukip
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Sport
Diego Costa
footballEverton 3 Chelsea 6: Diego Costa double has manager purring
Arts and Entertainment
The 'three chords and the truth gal' performing at the Cornbury Music Festival, Oxford, earlier this summer
music... so how did she become country music's hottest new star?
Life and Style
The spy mistress-general: A lecturer in nutritional therapy in her modern life, Heather Rosa favours a Byzantine look topped off with a squid and a schooner
fashionEurope's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln
Voices
Caustic she may be, but Joan Rivers is a feminist hero, whether she likes it or not
voicesShe's an inspiration, whether she likes it or not, says Ellen E Jones
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
News
i100Steve Carell selling chicken, Tina Fey selling saving accounts and Steve Colbert selling, um...
Arts and Entertainment
Unsettling perspective: Iraq gave Turner a subject and a voice (stock photo)
booksBrian Turner's new book goes back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Some of the key words and phrases to remember
booksA user's guide to weasel words
Life and Style
Brave step: A live collection from Alexander McQueen whose internet show crashed because of high demand
fashionAs the collections start, Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

CRM Developer (MS Dynamics 2011/2013, JavaScript)

£55000 - £65000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: CRM MS Dynamic...

IT Teacher

£22000 - £33000 per annum: Randstad Education Leeds: ICT TeacherLeedsRandstad ...

Graduate C#.NET Developer (TDD, ASP.NET, SQL)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Graduate C#.NET Developer (TDD, ASP.NET, SQL) Su...

Junior SQL DBA (SQL Server 2012, T-SQL, SSIS) London - Finance

£30000 - £33000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Junior SQL DBA...

Day In a Page

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

Europe's biggest steampunk convention

Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor
She's dark, sarcastic, and bashes life in Nowheresville ... so how did Kacey Musgraves become country music's hottest new star?

Kacey Musgraves: Nashville's hottest new star

The singer has two Grammys for her first album under her belt and her celebrity fans include Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams and Katy Perry
American soldier-poet Brian Turner reveals the enduring turmoil that inspired his memoir

Soldier-poet Brian Turner on his new memoir

James Kidd meets the prize-winning writer, whose new memoir takes him back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
Aston Villa vs Hull match preview: Villa were not surprised that Ron Vlaar was a World Cup star

Villa were not surprised that Vlaar was a World Cup star

Andi Weimann reveals just how good his Dutch teammate really is
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef ekes out his holiday in Italy with divine, simple salads

Bill Granger's simple Italian salads

Our chef presents his own version of Italian dishes, taking in the flavours and produce that inspired him while he was in the country
The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

If supporters begin to close bank accounts, switch broadband suppliers or shun satellite sales, their voices will be heard. It’s time for revolution