Golden day of reckoning for fabulous next-door neighbours

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Comparisons, supposedly odious, are inevitable where above-average ability is concerned. And in the sport of racing, which is largely funded by a willingness to back an opinion, they are essential.

The debate over the respective merits of the world's two best steeplechasers, Kauto Star and Denman, is given an extra frisson by the fact of their living in adjoining boxes atPaul Nicholls' yard in Somerset. Not since the mid-Sixties,when Arkle and Flyingbolt were both with Tom Dreaper in Co Dublin, has one trainer had two such high-class performers simultaneously under his care.

Like Kauto Star and Denman, those two great Irish-based horses shared a prodigious talent. In character, though, they could not have presented a greater contrast. "They were the night and the day," their jockey, the late Pat Taaffe, once said. "A small child could walk into Arkle's box in complete safety. No child, no man, would willingly step into Flyingbolt's... at least, not twice. He'd kick the eye out of your head."

No such problems exist at Manor Farm Stables; Kauto Star and Denman are both good-natured fellows, even if not quite as bombproof as Arkle. But they, too, are different. "If they were people," said Clifford Baker, Nicholls' right-hand man, "Kauto Star would be Tiger Woods, talented and unassuming. Denman would be Muhammad Ali, talented and very assuming."

Kauto Star, the reigning champion, has an elegant, classy physique, with a bright bay coat and white blaze. Denman, the challenger, is the heavyweight of the pair, bigger and coarser in build and a rather dull dark liver-chestnut in colour. Their way of racing reflects their looks; Kauto Star is a shadower with the acceleration of a Ferrari, Denman is much more in your face and has earned the sobriquet of "The Tank" for the way he grinds the opposition into submission.

Both weapons are mighty effective – the two eight-year-olds, in different ownership, have collected between them 27 victories from 38 outings and earnings of more than £2.5 million – and should provide a perfect foil for each other in the Gold Cup. Arkle and Flyingbolt never met; Kauto Star and Denman will do so for the first time on Friday, and the prospect of the showdown has the sporting nation in thrall.

Nicholls' concern is less the race than the aftermath. "Win, lose or draw, the main thing is that they both come home safe," he said. "But in an ideal world, it would be good to see them both jump a clear round, come to the last together and the best man win from there."

On only three occasions has the same trainer sent out the first two in the Gold Cup, most recently in 1983, when Michael Dickinson also supplied third, fourth and fifth for good measure. But there was no question, then, of any rivalry between two superstars.

The razzmatazz and hype surrounding the clash of the titans in the 80th Gold Cup includes partisan rosettes,T-shirts and a battle bus, organised by race sponsors the Tote, which invites fans to "honk once for Kauto, twice for Denman"', and the worst result would probably be the anticlimax of victory for something else.

"All the build-up is great publicity for jump racing, and anything that encourages people to be interested or get involved is good," said Nicholls. "But we must remember it's a horse race, and this sport has a habit, like every other sport, of kicking you up the arse when things don't unfold as anticipated."

Nicholls and his stable jockey, Ruby Walsh, have nailed their colours to Kauto Star's mast, and it is difficult to disagree. Clive Smith's French-bred, who has not only the Gold Cup purse but also a second £1m bonus in his sights, has been there, done that and has proved that he – like Arkle, like Desert Orchid – is that paragon, a top-class staying chaser who owns two-mile pace.

The final line-up for Tuesday's 78th Champion Hurdle will be confirmed today, with Sizing Europe a warm favourite to continue Ireland's four-year domination and Osana perceived as the best of the home defence. Osana, from David Pipe's yard, is the better, slicker jumper and is preferred, with Catch Me, who was one of last year's best novices and who bounced right back to form three weeks ago, the each-way value.

The betting implies that Wednesday's senior Grade One feature, the Queen Mother Champion Chase, is another Nicholls benefit; Master Minded and Twist Magic head the market. Master Minded, in the Kauto Star colours, is improving rapidly, but afive-year-old has yet to win the two-mile crown and he may have to give best to Osana's versatile stablemate Tamarinbleu.

The marathon runners have their turn in Thursday's World Hurdle, for which Inglis Drever will be a short-priced favourite to win the three-miler for an unprecedented third time, and should do so, despite the indifferent form of Howard Johnson's string. The two-and-a-half mile Ryanair Chase, upgraded to the top level for the first time this year, can go to another Nicholls inmate, the beautiful rocking-horse grey Turko.

Great Cheltenham head-to-heads

1935 Gold Cup: Golden Miller v Thomond Golden Miller's fourth of five Gold Cup victories was the hardest fought. Old rival Thomond was one of the few to have beaten the champion and, once his participation was confirmed, extra race trains were laid on. After a titanic duel from three out, the Miller prevailed by three-quarters of a length.

1964 Gold Cup: Arkle v Mill House It was supposed to be a recrowning, not a confrontation. Reigning king Mill House had beaten the upstart Arkle in the Hennessy at Newbury in November and was odds-on for a repeat. He led from the start, jumping brilliantly, but Arkle took him before the last to win easily on his way to immortality.

1979 Champion Hurdle: Monksfield v Sea Pigeon First and second the previous year, Monksfield and Sea Pigeon, two of the brightest nuggets in a golden age, drew away from their rivals, jumped the last as one and produced arguably the most emotional finish seen in the race. Monksfield won, just; Sea Pigeon took his revenge a year later.