'I had one look behind – I knew I had more'
Saturday 15 March 2008
Denman may be 17.1 hands and 555kg of mighty power, but for his rider, Sam Thomas, his size is deceptive. "For a big horse," he said, "he is extraordinarily light on his feet. And he is as handy and clever as a 13-hand pony." Some pony.
For the 23-year-old Welshman, the race, and its build-up, panned out as simply as ABC, although, given that he is the son of a maths teacher from Abergavenny, 1-2-3 is probably more appropriate. His ride on Denman was confirmed after Ruby Walsh opted to stick with Kauto Star.
"It was a tough, tough decision for him, and I can see why he made it," said Thomas, "but it suited me fine, because I wanted to ride Denman. We didn't discuss much before the race, just wished each other luck at the start and went about our business."
Thomas's job was to settle Denman behind the Paul Nicholls stable's third string, Neptune Collonges. "I was glad to get a lead," he said, "because he tends to get a bit keen if you set him alight in front early, with only fences to aim at. I didn't kick him at any stage; he's just such a good horse, and does everything so easily, that you could easily go too quick on him almost without realising it."
In front of him, young Sam had the wise old head of Mick Fitzgerald on Neptune Collonges, a natural front-runner. Fitzgerald stressed that his job was not as pacemaker, but to ride the grey to obtain the best possible placing – that was very nearly second.
"My game plan was to go even fractions," he said. "When he was eighth last year he got caught in behind, he couldn't cope with the stop-start pace, couldn't use himself. I went out to ride the best race for me – not for Denman, not for Kauto Star – and I knew if I could do 15 seconds for each furlong, that would be the way to do it. My horse is a relentless galloper, a tremendous jumper and a very tough horse. And he gave me a great ride."
Denman's cruising speed and rhythm happened to be that considerable bit faster. "I knew I could go past at any point," Thomas said. "One good leap would do it. And once he took it up, he was loving it more. As soon as he landed, every time he was looking for the next fence, but stayed relaxed.
"I had just the one look behind, going to the top of the hill, and I could see Kauto Star in third. And I knew I hadn't gone that mad, knew I had more. There isn't a word to describe how that felt. I'd been through the race a million times in my head, and it went exactly to plan."
Though disappointed, Walsh was phlegmatic. "He didn't travel as well as he usually travels," he said of the deposed king, "and because he wasn't travelling, he didn't jump as well as he can. He shouldn't have been out of his comfort zone, because he's a horse who has won a Tingle Creek Chase and, although they were going a good old gallop in front, it wasn't two-mile pace. But for some reason he was. But that's racing; it's all about what happens on a particular day, and today wasn't ours."
The Irish v The British
*12.30 David Nicholson Mares Hurdle. Winner Whiteoak (British).
*1.05 Ballymore Hurdle. Winner Fiveforthree (Irish).
*1.40 Coral Cup. Winner Naiad Du Misselot (British).
*2.15 Triumph Hurdle. Winner Celestial Halo (British).
*2.50 Albert Bartlett Novices Hurdle. Winner Nenuphar Collonges (British).
*3.30 Gold Cup. Winner Denman (British).
*4.05 Foxhunter Chase. Winner Amicelli (British).
*4.40 Grand Annual Chase. Winner Tiger Cry (Irish).
*5.20 Vincent O'Brien County Handicap Hurdle. Winner Silver Jaro (Irish).
Final score: Britain 18 Ireland 7.
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