Drubbing of Denman leaves Nicholls and Walsh deflated

Cheltenham hero left trailing by Madison du Berlais on return after heart scare

Paul Nicholls is a man inclined to take a positive view but, after witnessing the first defeat over fences of the Gold Cup winner Denman here yesterday, even he was left facing the prospect that the glass may, in fact, be more than half-empty.

There were extenuating circumstances: the mighty gelding was running for the first time since his Cheltenham triumph in March and his subsequent recovery from well-documented heart problems. But his trainer's reaction will not have cheered his legion of supporters.

"Maybe," said Nicholls, "what we've seen today is all we've got. The Gold Cup last year may just have been his day of days."

Understandably, Denman did not look like an athlete honed to the minute. His coat is that dull liver- chestnut that does not easily take a shine, his muscles, with an absence of 330 days to overcome and the next Gold Cup five weeks away, were not fully taut and his jumping and com- petitive edge were, as they were entitled to be, ring-rusty. But his comprehensive defeat by Madison du Berlais still left his connections feelingflat. "I'd be lying if I said I wasn't disappointed," said his rider, Ruby Walsh. "We were hoping he'd do what he's always done, but he didn't."

Denman's trademark has always been a from-the-front, power-packed demolition of his rivals, but yesterday he was taken on by both Joe Livelyand Madison du Berlais and, though he led the field past the stands after one circuit, it was on sufferance only.

Walsh added: "He missed the first and then it took a bit of time to get him back on an even keel, and once Madison du Berlais hit his gears he had me struggling from the time we jumped the open ditch going out on the second circuit. For me, the race was over before we turned in for the final time. He was fairly tired so I nursed him home, making sure he kept his position."

Madison du Berlais, with TomScudamore standing in the stirrups giving Walsh a cheeky where-are-you wave, passed the post 23 lengths to the good. The fact that a horse of the calibre of Albertas Run, who beatall bar Denman's stablemate Kauto Star in the King George VI Chasehere in December, was another 25 lengths adrift in third was one straw for Nicholls.

"There are two ways of looking at it," he said, the balance of his analysis tilting this way and that. "The relief is that we've got him back on the track, he jumped and galloped, and the race will bring him on, he's had a good old blow afterwards but is not in any way distressed. This track was sharp enough for him, and he's happier and better going left-handed, the other way round from today. But we did hope that he'd be able to whistle round here and win nicely.

"The Gold Cup run got to the bottom of him and it took a while for him to get over it. Considering the other problems he's had – and when he came back to us after his heart illness he was very lean and light, almost poor, and it's taken us a long time to build him up – he's done well and we're glad to have him back safe and sound.

"But I'm not offering any excuses; the writing was on the wall a long way from home today and though yes, he will improve from the run, on this evidence he'll need to and I'd say that Kauto Star is now the one to beat."

Nicholls intends that Denman, whose put-it-all-in style may have brought about his own downfall, will take his crown back to Cheltenham next month, but the betting market now says it will be an unsuccessful defence. Immediately after yesterday's race he was pushed out from 7-4 favourite – a position now held by Kauto Star – to double that price and, with no takers, was 4-1 by close of play.

By contrast, Madison du Berlais, a 36th-birthday present for trainer David Pipe, contracted from 66-1 pre-race to 10-1, then 8-1. The eight-year-old had turned in a fine performance to win the Hennessy on his previous run and is on the upgrade, but Pipe remains realistic about his Cheltenham prospects. "A step up in trip and the cheekpieces have helped," he said, "but he's still got to up his game. We were sure we'd be fitter than Denman, but the manner of victory did surprise us. Kauto Star and Denman are both amazing horses, maybe today was the Gold Cup for our fellow. But he'll take his chance at Cheltenham next month, a chance he's earned and deserves."

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