As the new champion approached the winning post, Paddy Brennan turned to the stands and put a silencing finger to his lips. "Kauto Star and Denman," he explained later. "That's all I'd heard for the past three months. I know it's been good for racing. But this wasn't ever a two-horse race."
The jockey should comfort himself that none of those drawn here yesterday by all the talk of a showdown could have been remotely disappointed by what they had seen. The expectations vested in the two favourites were such that defeat for both might conceivably have been received like an episode of Coronation Street, following the opening theme of The Big Country. And the salutary lesson of Imperial Commander's success in the Totesport Cheltenham Gold Cup was that the sport owes its romance precisely to its unpredictability.
After all, they had come here to see brilliance, courage and endurance, and that is exactly what they got. They had, above all, come to see two outstanding steeplechasers slug it out from the home turn – and, once again, they could only be satisfied as Denman and Imperial Commander turned for home. Just because the shoot-out had not come off quite as anticipated, none could doubt the calibre of the ace who had stepped so coolly out of the side street.
High noon, Cheltenham style, admittedly entailed a dreary, drizzly afternoon in which the crags of Cleeve Hill shrouded their gaze on the unsparing drama to come. For every other witness, the moment could not come soon enough. They made Kauto Star 8-11 favourite to win his third Gold Cup, Denman having lost many of them with his atrocious jumping at Newbury last time.
The one possibility nobody had entertained was that it would instead be Kauto Star whose jumping would disintegrate. In his youth, admittedly, he would notoriously make the odd howler, but it had become routine to see him jump as fluently as he did in the early stages here. Ruby Walsh had him in the perfect position, settled just behind the pace – set by Carruthers, with Denman in close attendance – but the complexion of the race abruptly transformed when he crashed through the eighth fence.
A lesser rider than Walsh – which is to say, almost any other one – would never have retrieved the saddle. But could Kauto Star match his partner's recovery, in terms of lost ground and momentum? The crowd had gasped at his error, and 67,716 murmurs became an astonished roar as Walsh became the first of the leading group to reach for his whip, at the top of the hill. Any lingering hope was finally extinguished, in harrowing fashion, at the fourth last.
The shock rippled across the sport – through those whose daily devotion is matched by thousands of others, in stables throughout the land, for horses that will never win a race of any kind; through Paul Nicholls, the champion trainer whose responsibility in bringing both Kauto Star and Denman here had become still more onerous, with the whole sport suddenly depending upon him; and finally to the punters, who had already endured a brutal week. There was commensurate relief, then, as Kauto Star climbed at once to his feet. After that, nobody would be ungrateful enough to talk of anti-climax.
By that stage, Denman had been driven into the lead by Tony McCoy. His co-owner, Harry Findlay, was confident from the moment Kauto Star had made his first error. Like many others, he was sceptical that Imperial Commander could outstay Denman up the hill. But he acknowledged afterwards that Imperial Commander had won fair and square: he had gone with gusto just behind the pace, but retained so much energy after taking over approaching two out that he would storm seven lengths clear on the run-in. It was another 23 lengths back to Mon Mome, who just caught Carruthers and the weakening Cooldine for third, in the process completing a remarkably auspicious audition for his return to Aintree.
To be fair to Nigel Twiston-Davies, who trains Imperial Commander just 12 miles away, he had been telling anyone prepared to listen that he had every right to beat Kauto Star – as he so nearly had on their reappearance at Haydock in the autumn. "I know Paul said he was half-fit, but so was mine," he said. "I was getting sick of everyone saying he couldn't stay. But we don't like shouting our mouths off. I love being the forgotten man – you can all forget me again after today. We're at home here, we're where we belong, and the pub will go mad. Paul has done a wonderful job with his two, but we need new horses coming through – and ours is the best now."
Those who remember Twiston-Davies refusing an interview after the first of his two Grand National wins might be unsurprised to find him so neglected in the build-up, but he has become an easy man to like – and seldom more than as he watched his teenage son, Sam, win the next race on Baby Run. What you see with Twiston-Davies is what you get, and in this instance that meant infectious excitement, anxiety and jubilation. "That takes the biscuit," he declared, before sprinting off to greet his boy. He is now inclined to take Imperial Commander to Aintree next month, while the National itself is in Findlay's mind for Denman in 2011. Nicholls himself was just relieved Denman and Kauto Star returned in one piece: "Denman has run his heart out. Kauto Star was just unfortunate. He made a stupid mistake and it cost him. He was always going to do it one day, I suppose."
"You cannot make a mistake like that with horses like Imperial Commander and Denman in front of you," Walsh said. "It's not as simple as turning up and collecting the prize-money. It would have been the worst day if he wasn't all right. But he is, and there will be another day. "
Findlay's partner in Denman, Paul Barber, had an equally wholesome perspective: "I don't know whether I've seen a more exciting race. I'm sorry Kauto Star fell. But the crowd have had their money's worth."
1 Imperial Commander ......... P Brennan
2 Denman......... R Walsh
3 Mon Mome......... A Coleman