If a bad dress rehearsal means what they say, then perhaps Denman's fans might not need to worry too much during the five weeks before the Gold Cup. But the much-trumpeted new double act of the former Cheltenham hero and Tony McCoy corpsed spectacularly here yesterday in the Aon Chase, with the 14-times champion jockey left sprawling on the ground at the third-last fence. And, if the betting is a guide, when the curtain goes up on next month's showpiece, there will be just the one horse in the spotlight, rather than two. Denman's Paul Nicholls stablemate Kauto Star is now odds-on in most lists.
McCoy was thoroughly downcast after yesterday's performance, his first ride on the massive chestnut ahead of their Gold Cup venture, and was becoming so even before he was decanted. Sure, Denman had led his five rivals for most of the three-mile contest and had jumped accurately and spectacularly, but some of that power that has eared him the soubriquet "the tank" seemed lacking.
As Denman turned into the straight for the run for home over the last four fences, his nearest pursuer, Niche Market, was still in touch. A clumsy blunder four out had McCoy hanging on; a worse one at the next, where he took off too soon and landed in the birch, gave his rider no chance at all. And in an ironic, perhaps inevitable, twist to yesterday's plot, Denman's second-string stablemate Tricky Trickster, ridden by Ruby Walsh, won the race, galvanised to victory in the last stride.
"To be honest," reported McCoy, "I felt at the cross fence five out that I wasn't as far ahead as I should have been at that point. I wasn't confident he was travelling as well as perhaps it looked and I didn't get the acceleration towards the fourth-last that I thought I'd get. And after he made that first mistake he stood off a mile and stepped on top of the other fence. He just wasn't going forward with any momentum."
Despite yesterday's anticlimax – Denman started at 1-6 for what was supposed to be a paid exercise spin – Nicholls is confident the Gold Cup showdown with Kauto Star will still be a crowd-pleaser. "Today wasn't ideal," he said with masterly understatement, "but the horse is fine, in no distress, and there doesn't seem to be a mark on him. We've got five weeks to go and I've left a lot to work on and he will improve physically. "What happened doesn't make him a worse horse than he was before; he had jumped perfectly until that first mistake, which seemed to faze him a bit and he didn't sort himself out in time for the next one. We'll try to sharpen him mentally, but he's very much an individual at home, with on days and off days."
McCoy picked up the ride on Denman after Walsh decided to stick with Kauto Star for the Gold Cup. "I was disappointed with the horse," added the Ulsterman. "But disappointments are part of the game and my way is not to look back, but forward to the next time." Typically, McCoy was in the winner's enclosure after the very next race, winning the Totesport Trophy on 6-1 shot Get Me Out Of Here for the Jonjo O'Neill and JP McManus team.
Tricky Trickster's effort in catching Niche Market, last year's Irish National winner, in the last stride of the Aon Chase promoted him for favouritism for the Grand National, for which the weights will be announced on Tuesday. "I saw Denman's mistake," said Walsh, "and how he stayed upright I don't know. I thought he was lucky not to jack-knife. Then mine found his second wind and started to run and going to the last I realised that the one in front was starting to stop and that I could win it."
Tricky Trickster will join Kauto Star and Denman in the Gold Cup field as his final Aintree prep.
Happily, the Nicholls stable's other high-class player on stage yesterday came through his return to the public gaze with only one fluff. Two-mile champion Master Minded, diagnosed with a fractured rib after defeat in November, looked back to his imposing best in the Game Spirit Chase as he jumped straight and true, with a particularly breathtaking leap four out.
At the last, though, he and Walsh failed to agree about a take-off point and crashed through the obstacle but he still came home 13 lengths ahead of Mahogany Blaze. "The mistake was absolutely my fault," said the rider. "I don't know how he found a leg, but it just shows how much horse there was left that he could, and win so easily."Reuse content