James Lawton: The greatest race ever

Kauto Star and Denman battle for immortality in the Cheltenham Gold Cup
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The Independent Online

The Charge seemed to go on for ever here yesterday in this valley made vibrant by the promise of something unforgettable but, however bravely it ran, and however brilliantly it was guided, it was as though jump racing's longest day could never be more than just a glorious diversion.

It sounds bizarre when you consider the quality of performance from horses like Master Minded and Inglis Drever and their superb riders Ruby Walsh and young Denis O'Regan – and also the euphoria which engulfed every corner of the course when Tony McCoy, the man medical convention insists should be in a hospital bed, finally landed his first win of the Festival.

Yet, however copious the battle ribbons of Cheltenham on its marathon day, there was no question about the suspense of the most essential drama. Everybody was waiting for the Gold Cup champion Kauto Star and his challenger Denman.

Ageing men talked of a rare surge of blood, the kind which came when Muhammad Ali prepared to fight George Foreman, say, and there was both salt and magic in the air. And younger pilgrims to the Mecca of National Hunt racing listened to stories of the great horse races of living memory. Mostly, it was pared down to Mill House versus Arkle, Gold Cup, Cheltenham, 1964, and Grundy against Bustino, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, Ascot, 1975.

These were races that everyone who saw them knew they would have for ever. It is how they are talking here: Kauto versus Denman is not just one which might live for the ages, but also one that has already invoked the best of all that has gone before.

Arkle ambushed Mill House, the much favoured English champion, with courage and a turn of pace which shrank the Irish Sea to a point of agreement that, in the matter of judging sublime horseflesh, national bias had no part to play.

Eleven years later the Derby champion Grundy had to fight off the astonishing courage of the much less fancied Bustino along the entire Ascot straight.

Today the almost dreamy class of Kauto Star must withstand from Denman what their joint trainer Paul Nicholls describes as "slogging power". It is a collision that has been racked up to another notch of intrigue and expectation by the declaration of Denman's co-owner Harry Findlay that this is not likely to become a saga of warring talent and character, but a short and ultimately sharp dispute over the respective levels of ability owned by these eight-year-olds who are next-door neighbours in their trainer's Somerset yard. Said professional gambler Findlay: "This is the only time we'll meet. If we do beat him, we'll break him and maybe go a different route."

Denman, who is unbeaten in eight chases, might go to the Grand National in future years. The suspicion of many, though, is that Kauto, who last year terrified his supporters with what seemed like a perverse lack of concentration at the last fence, is heading for a rather higher place in the annals of jump racing. Like Arkle, who was so brilliant that the rules of handicapping had to be changed, Kauto is not just a maker of great and spectacular victories but also dreams.

Nicholls, who requires the objectivity of King Soloman when he weighs the cases of his charges, preserved the idea of a beautiful, competitive balance on the eve of the great race. Said Nicholls: "Kauto is the ultimate professional and as the reigning champion will be hard to beat while Denman is the young pretender and wants to knock Kauto off his perch. Denman is a tank and a tough slogger. Kauto has more finesse but both are very, very good. The appeal of the race is maybe that everything Kauto has done this year suggests he is as good or better than last year. Nobody knows how good Denman is – or might be."

Yet Ruby Walsh, who had the choice of both rides, hints at his belief that whatever extraordinary ground Denman covers this afternoon it may be that the deepest quality of Kauto Star will prove elusive in either victory or defeat.

Declared Walsh: "It will be wonderful if Kauto Star wins, disappointing if he loses, but that's racing... If Denman wins I'll be the first to congratulate Sam Thomas [ his jockey] and Harry Findlay and Paul Barber [his co-owners]. He's a wonderful horse – and I'm not saying I'm on the right horse. But I wouldn't swap it – not for anything – and on Friday we will know." We will know more than the issue of first or second. We will know if one or both of these horses has that unchartable talent to move not just a crowd, or a tough racing community, but a whole nation.

Certainly, there is no doubt they have encouraged the possibility to an extraordinary degree. They will carry out to the course this afternoon the possibility of one of the greatest races of all – and also the sense that this is a supremely exclusive contest. Even a will as extraordinary as that of McCoy, whose Exotic Dancer will probably start third favourite, accepts the possibility that his role may be that of a distant spectator. "There is no question that Kauto is an exceptional horse, but all you can do is race the best you can."

The best that Denman's owner Findlay can do is hold his nerve. He stands to win half a million if Kauto Star is beaten but, with double that amount gathered in on the road to this Gold Cup, he concedes that even a gambler whose life unravelled as a young man when he was sentenced to prison for credit-card fraud cannot be entirely governed by the financial margins of win and loss.

An admirer of Juventus, he left the Olympic Stadium in Munich in tears when they were beaten by an inferior Borussia Dortmund in a European Cup final – and he lost £180,000, "telephone numbers for me in those days". Today though Harry Findlay, who also lost £2.5m when he backed New Zealand to win the last World Cup of rugby, may shed an entirely different category of tear.

Kauto Star and Denman are, after all, engaged in rather more than one possibly great horse race. They are taking us, for the next few hours at least, to the very heart of sport.