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.