No matter how bright the fire, it can always be stifled by other elements. And yesterday Kauto Star, that smouldering champion, was overwhelmed by the ruthless, earthy power of the one horse anyone in these islands with the talent and temerity to usurp his dominion – the horse from the stable next door.
Denman's performance in the Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup here yesterday was gloriously free of the equivocation that had drawn millions of curious eyes to their encounter. Many, no doubt, had hoped the pair would slug it out up the hill – hook for jab, parry for hook – and pass the line in a bitter semblance of parity, to be parted only by the judge's camera. What they got instead was a brutal, theatrical display of insubordination from the upstart.
Kauto Star did his best to close him down as Denman finally showed signs of fatigue, signs of mortality, on the hill. But the man who trains them both, Paul Nicholls, had known that the game was up for Kauto Star even with a circuit to run. There were seven lengths in it at the line, and Kauto Star's blade was by now so blunted that the photo finish instead concerned second place, where he just held out by a nostril from Neptune Collonges.
That horse is also trained by Nicholls, and so hammered yet another circle of stakes around a stable that has become the impregnable powerhouse of jump racing. The previous day, Nicholls had saddled a still more impressive winner of the Festival's other championship race over fences, in Master Minded. Galloping his horses up a steep escarpment in Mendip country, he is defining a new epoch in steeplechasing.
Even Nicholls, however, had surpassed himself in stabling two such exotic talents under the same rafters, divided only by a whitewashed wall and a metal grille. Ever since both had won at the last Festival, Kauto Star in this same race and Denman in the novices' championship, the sport had craved a showdown. And each had done nothing in the meantime but heighten the stakes – a process amply assisted by the screwball partnership that owns Denman, comprising a garrulous professional gambler, Harry Findlay, and a wry, patrician dairy farmer, Paul Barber.
And here the horses were at last, strolling through the drizzle and tension of a parade ring that has seldom been so crowded, or so hushed. Out came the jockeys: Ruby Walsh, the master of a golden generation, already twice successful earlier in the afternoon, faithful to Kauto Star; and his young deputy, Sam Thomas, still to ride a Festival winner of any kind, a reprimand from Nicholls ringing in his ears after his riding in the previous race appeared to telegraph candid panic about his date with Denman. Something similar seemed to be rippling through the ring, where Kauto Star was loyally backed to odds-on, while Denman drifted out to 9-4.
There was no calm before this storm, only a feverish, restless hum. For this municipal resolution to an unusually intimate rivalry had given racing obligations, as well as opportunity. It was as though folk from the downtrodden, choked valleys had been summoned to some Arcadian summit, where they might sample some new, rarefied perspective. And the sport would be held accountable, whatever happened.
What if they slithered down some scree of disillusion, maybe because one of the pair unseated, and the other ran below form? Or, worse, they fell clear over a cliff of revulsion, because one horse was injured? As it was – glory be – they just gasped at the view. To those with a guilty comprehension of how this place routinely disappoints expectations, it was a great relief.
For the purity of the showdown even extended to its denouement. The race unfolded in clean, precise phases, its rhythms as transparent as any 1500-metre classic. For the first circuit, Thomas gladly took a lead from the old hand, Mick Fitzgerald, on Neptune Collonges. With the rabble already strung out, Thomas gave Denman the freedom of Gloucestershire over the 11th fence, and the big, bullocking horse surged gratefully clear, his jumping gaining in ambition by the fence. "The second he has landed over one fence, he's looking for the next," Thomas said.
The screw was now being turned, not by degrees, but in abrupt, savage twists. Every time Denman hurtled across a fence, all eyes immediately swivelled to Kauto Star for his response. Walsh had kept him fairly handy throughout, but his jumping lacked elan. It was like watching a man walking across a frozen pond, each step linking subtle fissures to the next. It was clear that the moment Kauto Star came off the bridle, the ice would cleave open.
When it finally happened, coming down the hill, Denman looked as though he might go clear by 20 lengths. But the effort of his depredations began to infect his own stride pattern, and gave rise to the illusion that Kauto Star was mounting some epic rally running to the last fence. In reality, he could barely beat a palpable inferior in Neptune Collonges.
Kauto Star's owner, Clive Smith, was denied a second £1m bonus from Betfair, but was sporting in defeat. "Denman always just had him at it today," he said. "He was ferocious." Walsh confessed he had been struggling even passing the stands. "Sam picked it up on the first down the back and I knew I couldn't get to him at that stage. Kauto Star was never travelling."
Findlay's only problem was how to drink champagne and talk simultaneously. "We've had to do everything right to break Kauto Star's heart, and that's what we did," he declared. "It's gone word-perfect. Sam was awesome. Going down the back, we all knew who was going to win. Paul Nicholls has done a brilliant job to get the horse in superb condition on the day. When you think Denman was up against his stable star, the Gold Cup winner, there's no way any other sport could have that kind of rivalry played out on that kind of level playing field. Racing is a massive [beneficiary] from that. He's a serious, serious horse. Who will want to take him on? He's had a ball today. He probably has got tired, but he really is very hard on other horses."
Nicholls immediately confirmed that Denman would be put away until next season, adding that he would discuss the original plan of Aintree for Kauto Star with Smith. The owner himself had already indicated a reluctance to go through with that.
Though all felt sympathy for Walsh, Nicholls reserved a special commendation for Thomas. "He got a red card in the race before, but I just told him to go out there and put it behind him," he said. "He was a young man under a lot of pressure and he did it very well. I'm very proud of him."
Barber, who is also Nicholls' landlord, had won the race in 1999 with See More Business. Now 65, he remembered that his ambition as a young man had been to milk 1,000 cows and win a Cheltenham Gold Cup. "But I've got 2,000 cows now," he said. "So I wanted two Gold Cups."
Findlay instantly retorted: "I'll lay evens he's got 3,000 cows next year so he can win it again."
Gold Cup result
1 Denman (S Thomas) 9-4
2 Kauto Star (R Walsh) 10-11 fav
3 Neptune Collonges (M Fitzgerald) 25-1
12 ran. Won by 7 lengths, sht-head.
Trained: Paul Nicholls
Owned: Paul Barber and Harry Findlay